Going Down the Road Feelin’ Bad

I abandoned my blog writing attempt five years ago after I finished my year of posting about my volunteer travels and how happy volunteering for those various organizations each month made my heart feel.  I had lost my inspiration, and my life took a turn when I decided to go back to school.  Things are […]

I abandoned my blog writing attempt five years ago after I finished my year of posting about my volunteer travels and how happy volunteering for those various organizations each month made my heart feel.  I had lost my inspiration, and my life took a turn when I decided to go back to school.  Things are calmer now although I am starting to feel those all too familiar pangs of restlessness.  Writing seems to help that.  Please be forgiving of any errors in grammar or prose as I am sorely out of practice beyond the sixth grade level.  So, welcome back, readers, here is my first, out-of-retirement post.

I tell my students that to become a good writer, you have to read good writing.  Although my recent trip with my daughter wasn’t quite the chatty, bonding trip I had envisioned, it did provide me with 30 hours of uninterrupted, Audible book listening. I heard a lot of good writing.  Here is my booklist in the order that I listened to them (along with my thoughts):

  1. Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari – This book was recommended by a colleague.  It is particularly good for those of you who are single. He’s hilarious, and it was the belly-aching laugh out loud humor that I needed at the exact right time
  2. Why Not Me? By Mindy Kaling – This is another book recommended by a colleague.  Boy, do they know me or what?  She is very funny.  This book explores self-esteem and self-worth. I would recommend mothers make their teenage daughters read/listen to this book.
  3. Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris – I have had this one for a while.  You should know a little about Sedaris and his writing style before jumping into his books.  You must understand satire to ‘get’ it – not everyone does, and that is ok!
  4. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*uck by Mark Manson – This is in my top 3 of the books that I listened to on our trip.  Spoiler: he says f*ck about every other word in the first chapter.  After that, the word is a perfectly placed F-bomb used for emphasis. I wrote down several things that he said on a napkin as I drove down the road.  Give me a break; at least I don’t text and drive!
  5. Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed – This is a book composed of letters and responses from Strayed’s advice column, Dear Sugar.  This book will definitely make your life not suck!  It may even make you understand compassion, empathy, humility and grace.  It filled me with emotion, sent chills down my spine, and yes, even made me cry.  It invoked self-reflection at it greatest.
  6. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig – I read this book for the first time years ago when I was exploring Buddhism.  I ‘got’ it this time.

Empathy – A Work in Progress

“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” ~Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the greatest novels ever written about empathy and the power of one simple value. Atticus Finch was trying to teach his only daughter important life lessons: to feel, to love, to care.  Atticus wasn’t always a favorite for his empathetic ways, but he stuck to his values and believed in the truth and goodness of people.

Tree in bloom, promising renewed life in Spring (West Virginia)

In 1991, English business woman, Anita Roddick, wrote, “I hope to leave my children a sense of empathy and pity and a will to right social wrongs.”

I have been back from West Virginia for four weeks now.  I was thrown back into routine and had very little time to give much thought to my trip and the feelings which I had experienced while there.  What I realize now, however, is that I came back depressed.  This trip was different.  The mountains were beautiful, it was spring and everything was blooming. The creeks and rivers were swollen with spring rains and flowers were starting to bloom.  The scene itself was truly majestic.

Cascade Falls

Unlike the scenery, the people were sad, angry, and depressed.  Not all of them, mind you, and I would be remiss to state that as so.  Several of the boys, though, had very angry, sad, or depressing stories to tell.  If this were my job I would be expected to leave the office and not take my work (the stories) home with me.  I was a volunteer, expected to go in, do the work, and live their life for a week.  What I couldn’t do was not bring a piece of it back with me.  The kids I met had no dreams.  It was depressing to me, that in my own Country, less than seven hours from my home, this existed.  I know that much worse than what I saw exists in other areas of this country.  What truly depresses me is that many people are apathetic about it.  They are not unaware of it. They are apathetic about it.  These are our children, they are our future, and they are being left behind!

“The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems.” ~Mohandas Gandhi

Some feel that the definition of evil is the absence of empathy.  My question is, would you still be considered evil if you sometimes show empathy?  Is it an all or nothing relationship?  I am not apathetic about it.  I am just frustrated by what I saw.  When I returned home this time, I felt as if I had done nothing.  I felt as if I did not, or could not, possibly make a difference. Although, we were told how volunteers helped to boost the boys’ spirits and they have  greater attendance at work when the volunteers are there.

“The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it. “ ~Albert Einstein

I don’t always practice empathy.  Sometimes, I will feel bad immediately after I say or do something – like the trigger on my impulse control is malfunctioning.  I witnessed a true lack of empathy this past week.  I witnessed hatefulness and vindictiveness to the point of which I am glad I was not a part (although I did have a slight trigger malfunction).  It made me think about my trip, and I guess, in closing, to answer my question, yes, it is all or nothing – for me anyway.  I believe, along with Anita Roddick, that empathy is an important principle and value to practice and most importantly, to teach our children.

Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eye for an instant?  ~Henry David Thoreau

Mount Hope

 

View from work site in Mount Hope

We continue to work each day in Mount Hope.  The boys are talking to me now but are still very quiet.  They love to ask me, “Can’t you find something to paint?” when they see me standing around.  Painting seems to be the area they stick me- until today when I actually got to cut and hang drywall.  Brian has been the one to talk to me the most.  He has an amazing story of trying to get himself set straight.

John and Brian (L-R)

Brian:

Brian is 24 years old and has been with SALS (Southern Appalachian Labor School) for about five years.  His Dad left he and his three brothers when he was young and he was raised by his step Father who died a few years ago.  Brian only has an eighth grade education.  He spent six years in a four year school and quickly discovered the best gig there was to be the bully.  True to his red hair, he had a temper and was kicked out of several schools for fighting.  Finally, the courts had had enough and told him that he could no longer attend any Fayetteville schools.  They wouldn’t bus him to another district and his family couldn’t drive him, so he dropped out of school.  After being sent “away” to juvenile prison for 6 months and “going crazy from counting the blocks on the wall,” he decided he never wanted to go back there.  He was then sentenced to go to work for SALS.

Most people have to apply to SALS.  You have to fill out the forms and then take a proficiency exam.  SALS requires you to obtain your GED while you are in the program.  There was a time where they accepted just about anyone willing and wanting a second chance.  According to Billy, “There were a bunch of thieves, drunks, and drug addicts that you couldn’t trust.  They would steal from the site or home owners or anyone.  They would let them in straight out of prison.”  He said that he used to steal but no longer does it because he now knows how hard you have to work to get stuff and he doesn’t want anyone ripping him off so he wouldn’t do that to anyone.  Although he has tried his best to stay out of trouble, he was recently arrested when he slapped a coworker who he caught stealing.  The coworker was sent to another site and hasn’t pushed through any charges.  He also has to go testify in a case where he is being accused of pulling a knife on a woman.  He says that he has witnesses to testify that all he did was yell at her, but with his previous record it might be hard, even with witnesses, to prove his case.  Apparently the woman called his mom a “pill popping whore” and I have found, Appalachian boys are very protective of their mothers.

Brian is having a hard time passing the last two sections of his GED. He struggles in math because he never got to take high school math classes. Until then, he can stay with SALS and receive a stipend of approximately $600 a month.  He says that it is easy money, and for now he can live on it since he is still living at home with his mom, his three brothers, his girl friend, and his brother’s girl friend. When he does complete it, he plans on going to electrical school.

Through all of this, Brian is taking the right steps to help himself.  He is trying to stay out of trouble.  He is looking ahead to electrical school, and when the supervisor leaves the site, Brian is in charge.  He can do the plumbing, run electrical, hang drywall, and a whole host of other things.  It is different for the kids working on these sites.  They have to do all the jobs.  They are the electricians, the plumbers the trim guys, and the painters.  You name it, and they can do it.  As I was sitting talking to Brian, I asked him about the F.T.W tattoo that he had on his hand.  I had seen it before a few days earlier on another boy.  The letters stand for “Fuck the World” or on a good day “For the Women” he told me. He also has the words “Rock Life” across his knuckles.  He told me that it used to say, “Fuck Life”, but now that he has to get a job he wanted to make it more respectable.

Brian’s story is the story of many here.  He is one of the lucky ones who found SALS and is getting a leg up on life.  In a county with no movie theater, no teen center, and no bowling alley, there is little else to do, so the kids find trouble.  The supervisor on the site, Jim, is running for mayor.  He hopes to try to start finding things for the kids to do.  He would like to create places for them to go to try to keep them out of trouble.  The father of three, he knows how important this is.  For now, the job site in Mount Hope is teaching them the skills they need to make their lives a little better.

For now, some say that Brian is taking advantage of Youth Build since most kids usually leave the program within a year.  The supervisor relies on him heavily, and it is felt he might even be sabotaging Brian’s education.  For only 24, Brian knows what he has to do, and he sees that a better future is right around the corner.

Can you hear the whistle blowing……….

Sixteen tons and what do you get, Another day older and deeper in debt.  Saint Peter don’t you call me cause I can’t go I owe my soul to the company store.  ~Tennessee Ernie Ford

 I painted white paint for six hours today in a room, mostly by myself.    The room is finished and since it was so hot up there, I had the windows open.  Lesson learned: wind causes paint to blow off the brush leaving the person who is attempting to paint looking like a Jackson Pollack painting.

The boys are starting to warm to us and I hope to start getting some of their stories tomorrow.  They picked us up a little early from work so that we could go to the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine.  I went into the shaft with some of our volunteers and learned about coal mining from our guide, Sonny. 

Sonny:

Sonny was our guide today.  He was a miner for 38 years.  So far, they tell him, he doesn’t have black lung.  Sonny took us 700 feet into the mountain where the temperature dropped from the warm 76 degrees outside to a chilly 56 degrees.  There were actually 5 levels of shafts below us that they used when it was an active mine.  They had raised the clearance and added lighting but you still got the general feel for their dark and damp atmosphere.   Sonny was very animated and talkative and seemed to love educating all of us.

Our guide Sonny

Sonny showed us how they used to the drill to drill holes in the side of the shaft, put the black powder (or later dynamite) in and then to tamp it closed.  The final step, yell, “Fire in the hole.”  I don’t know where I thought this saying came from, or perhaps I never gave it any thought, but now I know.  To end my day, here are some pictures of the shaft.  I will be up and back on the job site again tomorrow.

Miners preparing to blast to hopefully get more nuggets and less dust

(image source) 

Rock Duster
This is 2 tons - it would earn the worker about 25 cents for his labor

There’s more than Moonshine in West Virginia

Global Volunteers, the organization that I am here with, works with the local organization, Southern Appalachian Labor School (SALS) in West Virginia.

Banner outside the Community Center

SALS mission states that:

“SALS is to provide education, research and linkages for working class and disenfranchised people in order to promote understanding, empowerment and change.  SALS is committed to developing a real comprehension of the social, economic and legal structure which affects the lives of Appalachian people.”

One of the programs at SALS is Educational Training.  Youth build is one of the Educational programs that, “Works to meet the community’s need for education, job training, and affordable quality housing.  Participants must be 17-24 years old and high school dropouts.”  West Virginia leads the country in high school drop out rates.  Mississippi might have edged them out. West Virginians like to say, “Thank God for Mississippi,” when it comes to statistics on all things considered bad. The youth are required to prepare for the GED in the classroom to help meet educational goals.  On the job site they get training in construction.  They learn work skills as well as time management, leadership skills and self esteem.  I was on the job site today.

Community Center and Home Base this week

8:30

Donning my jeans, sweatshirt and my Ice Dogs hat, I climbed into the van.  I had my sack lunch in hand filled with a peanut butter sandwich, chips and an apple.  John had come to pick us up for our first day on the job site.  We first went to Oak Hill where SALS bought an old school to renovate and eventually rent out as office space to generate some revenue down the road.  It is basically in the stage of gut and clean.  Artie arrived with a van full of boys who climbed out, swearing like sailors and chaining smoking the minute they stepped out of the van.  One of them came over to our van, stuck his head in and said, “Welcome to operation Hell!”  We didn’t stay in Hell for long, they decided to take us to another town, Mount Hope, to help with the renovation of a home for a 91 year old man.

9:00ish

We arrived at Mount Hope and met Jim, the foreman and John and Brian two of the Youth Build boys.  The boys were very quiet and shy in the beginning.  We were told no pictures the first two days and that it would take them a while to warm to us.  They took us through the house to show us the different jobs.  Jim pointed at me and said, “Come with me.”  I followed and the next thing I knew, I was taking measurements, carrying trim and best of all, using the miter saw.  Yes, really using it.  Jim said, “You got this,” then he went over to the rail and lit up a cigarette.  I LOVED THE POWER!!!  The good news is, I only cut one board too short.  After cutting, I was shown how to shim up the trim and use the nail gun.  Once again, liking the power.  Once all the trim was nailed into place we had to caulk it and then paint all the trim around the room.  At this point, it was team Ned and Holly shortly thereafter joined by Chris Jr. and Gwen.  This was all done before lunch.

12:00ish

Lunch.  I stayed at the house with Gwen and Ned while the Chris’ and Rebecca walked to a little pizza joint down the hill.  The day was nice, slightly overcast but not real hot so we sat outside enjoying our lunch.  Ned commented that he thought Rebecca might be a ward of the state which brought contagious laughter from all of us.  I was so glad to hear it wasn’t just me!

1:00ish

Back at work.  I happened to walk upstairs to find Ned and Chris Sr. had gotten the afternoon instructions from Jim and we were to paint another entire room in the upstairs and put up the trim.  Since one is considered a professional in the area of miter saw and caulk after 5 minutes of instruction, team Holly, Ned and Chris knocked it out.  We started to get a bit punchy by mid-afternoon with the onset of bad jokes about caulking and finding studs to nail but it went by quickly.  I never got a chance to really engage with the boys working on the job.  They started to warm to me by the end of the day and even told us about the purple cow they had seen – acid maybe??  I wouldn’t be at all surprised by some of the stories I caught as I walked through the rooms and Ned was even offered good ‘ole fashioned moonshine on one of his trips out back to cut some trim.  I hope to get their stories in the next couple of days.

4:30

Out of there.  Back to Oak Hill to pick up some of the boys to take them home.  The last of the boys to be dropped off was Travis.  He was a large boy with paint all over his face.  He talked about his mother and how he wouldn’t do anything to make her mad.  When we were close to his road he said, “Hey you all, I live on Easy St.”  Sure enough, when we turned into his holler and onto his street, the road sign read “Easy Street.”  He said that when they made the road they asked his mom what she wanted the name of her road to be and she said, “I want to live on Easy St.”  He was very proud of his story.

SALS is working hard to change the lives of these youth.  They pick them up for work and make them be accountable.  They help them get an education and job skills along the way.  They are also affecting the life of the man whose house we worked on today.  The renovation has inspired him to start working on a will.  He never had one before because he never felt like he had anything worth leaving to anyone.  They are changing lives and having a positive influence on lives young and old.

Some things I learned today.  SALS is positively affecting lives young and old.  They are respected and known throughout the communities that they serve.  These youth have been given a second chance and moonshine is still readily available in West Virginia.

Country Road, Take me Home………

“In all of nature there is something of the marvelous.” ~Aristotle

New River Gorge, WV

Yesterday morning I decided to take a walk.  Rebecca spotted me taking off and ran to grab her camera so she could tag along.  We walked down the road in the quiet of the morning hearing only the sound of an occasional dog barking (and Rebecca talking).

Most dogs were chained to their porches or had a fence that ran in front of the house

I tuned out the incessant chattering of my walking partner and heard the gentle rushing of the creek, swollen from yesterday’s rain, that ran beside the road.  Houses dotted the banks along the road and creek separated by only a few feet on each side.

View down Beards Fork Rd

Immersed in my own thoughts I spun around to Rebecca and said, “I just heard a goat.”  She had heard nothing but I turned to look up the mountain side and sure enough, there was a little white goat looking down the hill at us.

We continued on our walk talking to people sitting on their front porches and waving to all the cars that would drive by.  Appalachians are very proud of their area and heritage.  They  were all willing to engage in any form of conversation.  Some were on their way to work in a neighboring town, some were retired and some were disabled from black lung disease or other mining related causes.  Mining decreases your life expectancy by 15 years due to increased risk of disease and accident.

Beards Fork, WV…….

Beards Fork is located about halfway between Oak Hill and Montgomery.  It is known as a holler.  In Indiana, hollers (hollows if you prefer) are usually valleys between two properties.  In West Virginia, this is an area in the mountains that dead ends.  One way in, one way out.  The houses are small and built right on top of each other.  In the beginning, the houses were owned by the coal companies and rented to the people who worked for them.  They started them out with credit and used their own form of money so people never went outside the community for any of their needs.  The companies had complete control over the people.

When the labor unions got involved and the people started using real money the company stores dried up and businesses within the small communities went out of business.

Coal companies are now mostly mechanized.  They dig less underground and have started mining from the top of the mountains.  They run huge conveyers up the mountains to bring the coal down.  Logging is also adding to the destruction of the natural scenery and evidence of mountain topping is evident in many areas.  Loggers are required to replace what they remove but many replace with non-indigenous species of plants that either don’t thrive or are more bush like then tree.

Beards Fork, WV

This is the area where I am living for a week.  It is down a one lane road that “Y’s” to two dead ends.  I am in a holler.  It is amazingly beautiful with flowing creeks on each side of the road which pose a danger of flooding every time there is a big rain. The spring wildflowers are starting to bloom and their fragrance is beginning to fill the air. There is a one lane bridge in a curve with a concrete structure overhead that makes it impossible for cement trucks to get to the holler if a new construction or renovation were to require cement.  Although they have many economic and logistical issues, the people we met on our walk through Beards Fork all had smiles on their faces and were more than willing to tell you about their town.

Creek along Beards Fork Rd

Today I am off to work construction.  I hear I am going to learn to hang drywall.  We will be working side by side with the youth in the youth build program who are learning a trade and preparing for their GED to hopefully better their lives.

Knocking that Curveball Out of the Park

Sometimes in life (a lot of times actually) we get thrown a curveball.  This trip was supposed to be about me and the personal fulfillment I get from doing volunteer trips.  I hope to take away as much from a local community as I am there to give.  This time, however, might be a little different.  This trip, I have already discovered, is going to be about patience and self control.  I have always thought of myself as a pretty patient person.  It takes a while before I get irritated with people.  I rarely get offended by people because I live under the philosophy of, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.”

Enter Rebecca………..

Rebecca is from California.  She has done several volunteer trips and hiking trips.  She has done several trips with REI (the outdoor clothing company) and “lives for REI clothing.”  She was in a car accident that left her in a coma for a year.  She is from Rodondo beach L.A. area and  started in the film business when she was 12.  In her 20’s she did anything she had to do to get the next big break.  In her 30’s she had the accident.  Her parents decided to sell her place and went through all of her journals.  She now believes that journaling is dangerous and that I (who she just met) shouldn’t do it.  She is one of two children born into a strict Jewish household and she drives a red Honda Accord that she got when she traded in her Element.  She is afraid that her hair is graying too fast and asked for my honest opinion on the matter.  I was nice, not honest.  According to her, Californians think that the Midwest has the nicest people thus offending the four other people with us by adding that the East Coast people are rude and always in a hurry.  She then preceded to offend our team leader, a native Appalachian, by saying that they were all fat and lazy (paraphrasing here). She proclaimed that since I was there by myself as well that we should be roommates and we would take the room at the end of the hall.  She would be on the bottom bunk and I could take the other bed. THIS WAS ALL IN THE FIRST FIVE MINUTES OF MEETING HER!  I did end up with a room of my own.

I like to think of myself as a good friend and listener.  I am not really very talkative especially when I just meet someone.  I like my quiet time and quite honestly, sometimes just being by myself.  I knew right away that I was here to work on my patience.  Although I thought I was a patient person, I need to realize that I have many areas that I need to work on and this week I am putting patience at the top of my list!

People do and say things because of gaps in their own personality.  Maybe she is lonely, maybe she has a new outlook on life since her accident.  Rebecca is very chatty and has no boundaries as to the questions she will ask you.  She has personal space issues but she is here to volunteer.  We are here for the same reason and for that, I owe her my patience and listening ear.

I woke up this morning and opened my blinds to check the weather.  Across the road was this sign tacked to a tree outside my window.  I will look at it every morning before leaving my room!

So for now, I am laying off the fastball and waiting for the curve.