–April Giatt, “A Thoughtful Spot”, sholom.org
There were 14 of us around the table, talking about culture, talking about place. Our book of focus was JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. We all connect to the same small college. We are old and young, male and female, faculty and staff, retired, just starting out, and mid-career. And about half of us have our roots here, in this land, in this place, and in this culture.
The rest of us come, mostly, from northeastern United States and northern Ohio—places not so far away, maybe, but places that are different in shape and scope and in the way the wind smells after a soaking rain. One young instructor comes from a cityscape in new Jersey, and she is dedicated to understanding her Appalachian students.
She expected to deal with issues like excess partying and crazy costumes and disrespectful language…and she found, to her pleased surprise, that, those kind of issues are short in supply here. But she encountered other challenges, like the student who had to miss an important exam because her grandmother was in the hospital.
Her grandmother was not critically ill; it was a gall bladder operation. No matter, the student told her professor, the family HAD to be there.
But…the young professor said. But…doesn’t your grandmother want you to pass this class—to do well in school? She must be so proud of you.
My grandmother, said the student, wants me at the hospital.
The people around the table who’d grown up in the area nodded and jumped in with their own stories. One talked of the edict, on a night that she had a very important meeting–a meeting, mind you, in which she had an organizational and a speaking role– to come sit vigil with the extended family for Aunt Aggie–who was 94, and had been slowly dying quite a while. Come and be there, the caller said, with 14 other family members, for the conference with the doctor. The person thus called upon is a smart and savvy woman, a polished professional who has made strong decisions and excelled at school and forged new pathways. And Aunt Aggie, mind you, was long past knowing or caring who was in the room with her.
So what did you do? the New Jersey refugee asked.
I told my mother, Aunt Aggie won’t know or care if I’m there, said our colleague. And my mother told me, Your Uncle Gary wants you there.
She looked at us and shrugged wryly.
So, she said, I went and sat vigil with Aunt Aggie.
Several people nodded.
It’s what we do here, they agreed.
They believe in the power and the value of family. They believe that you need celebration at birth, and support throughout your life.
They believe that, as long as you have family, there’s no reason for you to die alone.
There are those of us who leave, and there are those of us who stay: for all of us, there is the issue, the decision, of place. The places we choose shape us and hone us.
Our choice of place is an important part of who we are.
We lived for a while on the prairie in western Ohio, where Mark went to law school. We visited the campus the spring before he enrolled, exploring and observing; we watched students walking the sidewalks that intersected the manicured lawns. We gaped.
“Where are the piercings?” I asked. “Where’s the purple hair?”
I had worked at a SUNY campus where many of the students majored in music or art; they were dramatic and flamboyant young people with studded lips and noses. They wore vintage fabrics draped artfully over authentically tattered jeans. Their hair color often changed to match their costume hues. Many students, both men and women, dark-lined their eyes, and their passionate conversations soared and crested.
On the campus that housed Mark’s law school, the students walked sedately. Young men wore Oxford shirts; some free spirits jauntily rolled their long sleeves up. We saw more khaki pants than jeans, and the young women, hair shining, often wore skirts.
They were polite and smiling; probably thinking anyone as old as we were must be faculty or administration, they all said respectful hellos when we passed.
Mark and I exchanged looks. “Toto,” we agreed, “we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Twice, faced with unexpected detours on the back roads of Ohio, I was rescued by polite young men in pickup trucks who insisted that they’d lead me back to civilization. One drove seven miles out of his way to get me onto the main road, and then turned his truck–which was pulling a trailer full of hay–around in a driveway, waved and sped off before I could even stop to thank him.
It’s how these boys were taught to behave. Or, as friends with strong roots here say, “It’s how we do things here.”
The people are nice where I came from, but I don’t see that seven mile detour happening. Place has a lot to do with how we act and interact.
There’s a writer I like, Sharyn McCrumb, who writes books about North Carolina Appalachian folks–folks who are deeply rooted in the hills and the hollers of her fictional county. And she touches on, in her writing, the massive exodus of the Scots and the Irish from their lands, and their flight to the United States.
There’s a strand of green mineral, McCrumb says, that undergirds Scotland and Ireland. The same mineral strand runs below the hills of Appalachia. The author believes that back in the days of Pangaea, the Celtic lands connected to Appalachia. Then some catastrophic cracking separated the mass into two continents. But when the Scots Irish came to America and looked for a place to settle, the hills of Appalachia, formed and shaped by the same geology as the hills they left behind, spoke ‘home’ to them.
“Yep,” I can imagine them saying, “This here. This is the place.”
Transient, forced to leave their birth-lands, they settled in places that looked and felt and smelled like home. And protected–or cut off, depending on your view–from outside influence, they retained many of the customs and courtesies of the lands they’d fled. In fact, the year we first moved to this area, a troupe presented Shakespeare in the park in Columbus, Ohio–presented the play in Appalachian dialect. The language, the director maintained, was the closest living language left to Elizabethan English. Nurtured and protected in those hills and hollows, it survived when other dialects were flattened out and homogenized by proximity and media.
Some of those hollows are still pretty well insulated from modern intrusions. There are students here who go home to houses where the long arm of the Internet still does not reach–or whose “highspeed” Internet is dial-up.
If your place does not plug into modern society’s media arteries, that, too, defines you.
We understand that ‘click’ of connection, Mark and I do, with land that feels like home. We enjoyed the people and the long vistas and the opportunities afforded by our prairie years, but there were days when the cold wind blew in, relentless, from the west, and I could look out miles and miles and miles to try to see where it was coming from–a flat unbroken plain of view.
We grew up, both us, in western New York, on the coast of Lake Erie, where gentle foothills swell into the Allegheny Mountains. Those rolling hills shaped and formed us, and we found we missed them. (Once, then, I made Mark drive us to a nearby town called Mount Victory, so we could see the mount. We found, sadly, that the highest point in town was the railway overpass; there was no hill to climb.)
When we first visited Knox County, Ohio, where we’d live after Mark graduated, we felt an immediate connection. The hills rolled and gentled.
“This feels,” Mark said, “like home.”
If one lives in the United States, one comes from migratory stock. One’s ancestors may have chosen to relocate, or they may have been forcibly relocated. But relocate they did. The mythos of the country is a legend of migration–of westward expansion, of independent cusses who had to up and move when the land got crowded, when things like stores and schools and churches moved in.
My friend Wendy, who grew up in New England,–where, of course, they famously farm for rocks,–comes to visit and she marvels at the rich and gently rolling land. New Englanders must have thought they’d died and gone to heaven, she says, when they came upon this fertile land. No wonder this place called to them.
People choose their places by geography or opportunity, by job and by marriage. Some put down long roots and really merge, and generations come to know and appreciate the same spaces. Others are transplants; their roots stay closer to the surface. Survivors, they know that they may have to pull up those shallow roots and move on again.
There are benefits and sacrifices to whatever choice is made.
I am thinking about place because of the revelations that emerge in discussing Hillbilly Elegy, and some of the mysteries of this place, and some of the mysteries of these practices, are explained.
I am thinking about place as one I know contemplates a difficult choice between two wonderful jobs–one that would take him away from the home he and his family have adopted and grown to love, but that would also move him closer to his roots.
I am thinking about place because a friend is willingly exiled by a family emergency; she misses the geography and the comfort and the refuge of home.
I am thinking of place as the reality of time rubs against the needs of an adult son with disabilities; he will need to access services after his father and I are gone. Where, we ponder, is the best place for us, ultimately, to live?
The places we live work to shape us; the choices we make help define us. We choose this place because…it feels like home. It gives us room. It offers work. It has the goods, the services, the people, the proximity, that fill our need. Or–we choose this place because our family is here. Because our roots go deep, and we will not pull them up.
We choose because this is the sight we want to see every morning when we wake up and take our mug of steaming coffee onto the back stoop; this is the vista we need to start our every day.
The choice we make reflects what is most important to us at the time of choosing. We may make that choice many times in a lifetime. Staying will teach us many things. Upping roots and going will give us chances to learn others.
There is not, I don’t think, a WRONG place to live–unless the place we’ve chosen sucks our souls dry or presents us with choices we cannot bear to make. But our places absolutely shape our beings.
We all, like Pooh Bear, need to find our place. And we need to be able to look at the place we’ve chosen, to sigh, and to and say, “This is a thoughtful place to rest.”