Good Friends and Bridge Crossings

CWVThere is so much I need to say, I’m not sure where I should begin, this time around.

A part of me feels sad and lonely. A lot of me feels frustrated.

These feelings are not something I feel every day, but I don’t know what to do with it all, how to give it away, or make it disappear.

Give me a 40-minute ride up the mountain to Beckley, an energetic hike, or an ice cold beer and I am back in my own skin – safe from all this worry, thought and feeling. Thanks to my backpacking tent, a pair of hiking boots, and my trusty old vehicle, I can leave this place, immerse myself in solitude, and come back and do it again.

I am in search of a trusted friend who understands how hard it is to live this dual life. On the one hand, I have a life in a big city, some money tucked away, and people who care about me. On the other hand, I am living in a school, working in isolation — trying so hard to change a situation — and people ask me why I need to do it.

It’s the pressure – the never-ending pressure – of people wondering, why can’t we do more in Appalachia? I must always remember that my other VISTA peers understand these feelings – and they remind me of this again and again.

I am right where I am supposed to be, they tell me. Yet there is nowhere to turn when I need to get away.

So much drug addiction, so much lack of opportunity. You know it’s bad, when the president of the United States comes to West Virginia to make a statement.

Yes, West Virginia. You have the highest number of drug overdose deaths per capita.

My new life in Mullens is a journey of parallel lines. I have lived in an underserved neighborhood before, an outsider to Cleveland myself, trying to understand why so many people want to reject change. This world of trying to explain — trying to understand why it is so – is something my friends in the north have a hard time understanding. Sure, they can offer me the consolation I seek, but only temporarily. They can’t help me solve the puzzle, erase the despair, or change the status quo.

Lighten up, g.friend. This is not your cross to bear.

Hat2I do believe I found solace last Sunday because I stumbled upon a lesson that I believe was meant for me. I didn’t take it from the Good Book, so to speak. It came to me through the airwaves.

I had set my alarm to NPR. I was feeling a little anxious when I went to bed the night before. I had just returned to Mullens after a wonderful visit to Cleveland, a series of home-cooked meals with my mom, a couple of beers with an old friend, and a quick trip to Huntington. It seems that whenever I leave Mullens for somewhere else, it doesn’t matter that every liberal organizer, academic researcher and educated non-profit leader gets what I am doing. It’s the fact that right here in Mullens, I am a city girl with a lot of epiphanies when she least expects it.

During the first six weeks here, I attended a wonderful agriculture conference at West Virginia State University in Charleston. I hit the Endless Wall; brainstormed some thoughts at the Wild Ramp in Huntington; made a lot of wonderful, new connections. I learned about youth entrepreneurship at Create, West Virginia. I’ve had midnight conversations with river guides, rafters and coal miners. I have worked on the most meaningful service projects and bonded with youth leaders and students who totally get it. But once I cross that line between Beckley, Lester and Slab Fork, I don’t know what to do with all those things that keep swirling in my head.

You can only do so much. It isn’t up to you to even wonder, I say. You will never convince a system that things aren’t how they’re supposed to be.

And so it was, this series of thoughts and epiphanies that lead me back to an early Sunday morning, and a week that completely validates me.

River2_BAOn this particular Sunday, my alarm went off in the middle of Inside Appalachia, my favorite radio program on West Virginia Radio. I didn’t realize it when I awoke, but I was listening to an interview with a gentleman who served as a VISTA during the 1960s. He was talking about how hard it was to fit in – just like all the other VISTAs who had been working in Central Appalachia.

How amazing I would wake up to this new, different voice in my head.

But it was the voice of Jay Rockefeller, and all of the locals that got me thinking. Every insider was viewing the VISTAs as outsiders, and I finally got both sides of the story without feeling a whole lot of sorry for myself.

How refreshing to feel this bad! Finally, I wasn’t alone.

LJohnsonAfter listening to 50 Years After the War on Poverty, We Look Back at Early VISTAs in Appalachia During the 1960s, the alarm rang my bell.

What a fitting way to awake this city girl.

Four days later, I was carpooling with two other VISTAs on my way to Middleburg, Virginia for a VISTA retreat. I connected with folks from the Department of Interior and shared what I had learned on Sunday. I talked about it again with some more VISTA alums as we hung out by the campfire on a rural farm, far away from Mullens. I hope to show off some photos, since I forgot to take my own.

We stared up at the stars. We hugged each other. We shook our heads at the same time.

We belly laughed.

Finally, we all realized we have this bond together. Alleluia, indeed.

NewRiverWhat an awesome thing we have, each and every one of us! I was happy again, rejuvenated to know, there are people just like me. So if I can keep what I learned in my mind and my heart with a steady stream of consciousness, I have something to tap into whenever I am feeling really low.

Each day is a new adventure for me, so I better get used to the ups and downs, right? On October 17th, I traveled to my first Bridge Day in Fayetteville with a small group of Cleveland friends. We watched below at the massive gorge below us. We enjoyed spectacular weather and toasted our beer to friends at the Secret Sandwich Society. I felt so happy and content to be with the people who know my true intent. Again, hoping my friends will share pics!

bridgeday1I realized after looking at our photos of the day via camera phone, there is a lot of risk and reward when you decide to take a plunge. No matter how big or how small, you have to reach beyond your comfort zone to get there.

I did. I will.