Dear Eastern Kentucky,
Four years ago, I got my only tattoo—a red bird on my right shoulder blade. It was no coincidence that I chose the cardinal as my talisman. It symbolizes our mountains, and I wear it with pride. For I have been marked by these crags, by the muddy waters of the Cumberland. By Mamaws who cleaned homes for only a quarter a day, by parents who rolled pennies to attend college. By churches and schools and soup beans and cornbread.
I have held your heritage close to my chest, and I carry it on my tongue when I speak. When I lived outside your borders for nearly six years, I was occasionally profiled by my accent. Some found it charming, while others scoffed, thinking it a mark of illiteracy and ignorance. I defended you in these moments, testifying of our rich literary heritage and the hard-working, good-hearted people in our hollers.
But here, back home in these mountains, I find myself being judged by my sexuality.
I am a gay Appalachian. A child of God. Your son. I have always claimed you as my own. Now, you must claim me.
I know your history, of the live and let live tradition that once existed here. Your first settlers fostered that philosophy in their quest for land, privacy, and above all, independence—the freedom to live their lives as they saw fit.
Those values are scarce today. Ours has become a reactive culture, fearful of progress and change, exploited and beaten down to a bitter pulp of what we once were. "Hope deferred makes the heart sick," the Proverbs say, and I agree.
My heart grows sick when preachers use the words degenerate and reprobate.
My heart grows sick when shoppers stare in the aisles of the Dollar General.
My heart grows sick when parents throw their hands in the air and say I'm through with you.
If God is indeed a Kentuckian, as the great William Faulkner wrote, surely he must mourn for our region, for the hate that fills our hollers. But he must also rejoice in seeing groups like the Berea College Gay-Straight Alliance, which promotes love and acceptance and service.
Yes, Eastern Kentucky, I have been marked by you. I carry your tattoo on my back, your accent on my tongue, your mountains in my soul.
And your scars on my heart.
For far too long have you slept silent.
Like the locomotives that once ran the rails along your river.
The world changed; with coal no longer King, you lost your steam.
The firebox no longer tendered, you draped your dreams and sank in sleep.
But we hear you, lady, waking; ready to rise again:
In your Main Street vision, vibrant
In your merchant morning meetings
In your feast of seven fishes
In your artists and educators
In your festival of blues, where Johnnie's still so good
In your buildings re-façaded
In your people, so determined
And to all those who doubt you, who speak of starts false-started;
Of actions un-enacted; Of visions never vaulted; Of plans in desks forgotten.
They are staring at a memory, less of substance than ideas.
They point to your caked makeup, your stained and stinking ball gown
They say the Lady's faded; her best days in the past.
But we hear you, lady, bathing; shining up your skin:
In the classes of your colleges
In the brushstrokes of your artists
In the bustle of your businesses
In the beckoning of your bridges
In the caring of your councils
In the parables and gatherings
In plays played by your casts
We won't say you've held no secrets, in your belly, in your breast.
We won't say your gown was spotless, even in your early days.
But the prejudice and pride, the dealings dark and crimes
Won't diminish your renewal; but remind us of what comes
When the Lady is dishonored, and we serve our baser needs.
And we hear you, Lady, speaking, of the promise of your past:
In the fort of frontier dreaming
In the mission, hope redeeming
In the Y, to young men calling
In the shelters, hunger feeding
In the courthouse, law enduring
In the cafes, thoughts exchanging
In parks and theatres, celebrating
It's now time to clean the firebox of its century-old coal
And find a finer fuel for you, Fairmont; one that burns clean and shining
In the twin turbines of Community and Diversity.
And as you stir, awakening, like locomotives, newly steaming
We hear your words of warning: "I can only be what you will make me."
Thanks for making life "almost heaven" for me and my wife Sharon. Three years ago, after my retirement from teaching, we decided to move from our home in Lodi, New Jersey. Sharon could hardly believe I would leave my roots and head south for the mountains of West Virginia. Born and raised in War, the southern -most city of West Virginia, Sharon was convinced we'd be "stuck in Lodi" for the rest of our lives.
I told her the story of my first visit to West Virginia when I was only fifteen years old. My late brother Al had just married a girl from Crab Orchard and took me along to meet her family. It was love at first sight! West Virginia was so beautiful that I turned to Al and predicted, "Someday I'm going to live here." Of course, he smiled, having no faith at all in my prophetic words. It took me fifty years but that dream came true!
Princeton, you were not the first city we considered. Martinsburg and Morgantown were high on the list, but when we visited both of them, something was missing for us. They were lovely cities, make no mistake about that, but they were not "my city," the place I could imagine myself finding that inner peace I knew I wanted more than anything else in the world.
I was familiar with your name. I read poetry at the Princeton University Bookstore in Princeton, New Jersey. A good friend of mine lived in Princeton, Missouri. All three Princetons were county seats in a county named Mercer. So, finding Princeton on the map, we drove there and something clicked. "This is it!" I told Sharon. "This is where I want to hang my hat and my heart."
Sometimes love is unexplainable. We feel something inside, an affirmation perhaps that "This is real," and we head toward its light. Princeton, you are that light for us. You are that city we want to fall asleep in at night and wake up in each new dawn. It is your streets we delight in walking. Your residents we greet and with whom we share our joys and sorrows. We are so happy to have at last found a home in a city like you, a city we love!
Princeton, may God bless your first 100 years with many more centuries to come!
Proud resident of Princeton, WV
You are not a real city. Real cities should have at least 50,000 people living inside their limits. On your biggest Fourth of July Day, you might hit 20,000. And that's fine, Ripley; that's what West Virginia is, a series of not- cities connected by curvy roads. Don't let Charleston try make you feel bad about yourself, because it only has 50,000 people in its city limits if its city limits include all of Kanawha County and the top half of Putnam.
But I love that you are tiny. If you were any bigger, I would have relied on you to entertain me. If you had had a movie theater that wasn't still playing Forrest Gump, I would never have known how to sneak twenty people through a barbwire fence, just because the best view of the stars happened to be in someone's cow pasture. And I probably wouldn't know that at two in the morning, route twenty- one south is a rare straight stretch just made for getting your car up to a hundred miles per hour. But let's keep that between us, Ripley; I'm not sure the county deputies will think that's as awesome as I do.
See, it's too easy in a real city, Ripley. Sure, there's always something around a corner, something that promises fun and excitement. But only for a cover fee. There is no cover fee for an all- night bonfire on Tug Fork. And there has never been a cover fee for piling into the bed of a pick- up truck and driving around those curvy roads looking for trouble, but usually just finding a possum going through someone's garbage.
So yes, Ripley, you are tiny. And cheap. You are tiny and cheap like a rubber ball from the quarter machine at Carolyn's Beauty Shop. But you know what? I like that rubber ball. I can entertain myself for hours with a tiny, cheap rubber ball, playing a million games I make up in my own head, games I'd never realize I could create if I lived in a real city where games are sold to me on every corner.
You might not be a real city, Ripley, but that's just fine. I'm not a real- city girl, and I like me just fine too. We'll be just fine together, Ripley, just like we always have been.
I heart you,
My introduction to you in the 1970s started out a bit shaky. A man pointing a rifle at my family walked up to our powder blue Rambler and asked what we were doing at Alderson Prison Camp.
"Just doing some sight seeing," my dad replied. He wasn't afraid of getting shot because he knew armed guards patrolled the prison and thought none of them would hurt tourists who stayed in their vehicle.
"You'll have to leave now," the man said still pointing his rifle at our family. "Turn around at the parking lot, but don't go near the building."
After my family left the prison grounds, we saw your beautiful architecture, and the kids in my family went on the swings in your park. We stopped to look at one of your towering trees--one of the oldest oaks in the state. Crossing your new bridge on foot, my family looked down into the rocky river. Since it was a hot day, we stopped for your ice cream.
Stopping at the cemetery just outside of town, we looked in every direction and saw tree-covered mountains.
My family was from Illinois and had gone to visit my brother Tom in South Carolina. On our way home, my dad decided to see the stretch of I-64 that had been completed. Taking the detour, my dad introduced us to you and the surrounding area.
Then our dad took us to your not so nice part—a street that had stop signs so faded that they were no longer red.
Decades later, I moved to Alderson. I went down that same side street and the stop signs were even more faded than they had been years before because you have been neglecting your responsibility of replacing them. The state only takes care of the signs on the major roads.
The drivers on the roads with faded stop signs must be good drivers because I haven't heard of accidents on those roads. But if someone were to drive through an intersection without stopping because he didn't see the faded sign, then you would be at fault.
I always heard, "Ask and it will be given to you," and, "A stitch in time saves nine." So you should ask the state and federal government for money. When will you ask?
Sometimes, I think you're trying to run me off. Go on. Take your best shot.
Tell me I'm not welcome anymore. I'm blue as a fish hook; you're red as cardinal weed. And now Fox News, talk radio, and ten thousand web sites reinforce what was always most narrow- minded, most mean-spirited in you. Bring on the dozers and the dynamite. Blow the tops off these mountains as if they were nothing more than just coal to be mined, just money to be made. Prove to me that for every crooked politician we get rid of, three more will emerge, younger and slicker, to take his place. Show me meth labs. Show me the children of families poor now for seven generations.
I will not turn away. And I will show you houses with vegetables and flowers growing alongside, with children raised in a loving crowd of neighbors and kin – gentle, dignified, invisible.
You won't run me off, and I won't go. We are all bound together here, by our love for this place -- deep, abiding, and ultimately inexplicable, though a thousand hillbilly songs have tried to explain it.
We are bound by memory, which lingers over these hills and valleys like fog after rain. My great-great-uncle hunted with yours. They traded dogs, knives, stories, fiddle tunes. Our great- grandfathers shouted to one another in the corn field and the log woods. Our great-great-aunts and grandmothers quilted and broke beans together, talking and laughing easy under shade trees. For two hundred years they stood at one another's sickbeds, birthings, baptizings and buryings, and wondered at the same mysteries and knew the same joys, the same sorrows.
You can't run me off, and I can't go. I've been here too long now. I can't rest away from the soft embrace of hills around me, can't feel the blood running in my veins without creek water rushing over rocks. I'm lost without the markers in the family graveyard, to show me where I came from and where I'm bound.
You can drown me out, but I'll keep singing anyway. I know the words and the tune, the harmony parts, the parts that stomp the floor and the parts that yearn – one more hillbilly song, about how I love you and how you break my heart.