The Way Forward

Here in West Virginia we've been wondering about the way forward for many years. People feel desperate about the state of things--the widespread loss of jobs, the incredibly scary drug epidemic, the tendency of young people to leave the state. As a Charleston attorney explained in a blog post that went viral last week, it's these lost opportunities and jobs that account for our state's recent election results.

Last week I listened to a documentary called Cedar Grove, produced by Catherine Moore, who says: "There's just kind of a feeling in the air, right now, in central Appalachia, that we have reached a moment, or a crossroads, where we're gonna have to choose a path for our future." Her piece is worth a listen, and her conclusion simple: it starts with us.

And while I like that sentiment (take the power back! be self-reliant! don't wait for someone to save you!), it does leave me wondering. What does that mean?

For my part I say, hey, check out our beautiful state. We got to see some terrain you can't access except on foot by taking a ride on the Cheat Mountain Salamander train outside of Elkins several weeks ago. Which I mention because tourism is one option we have here. Social entrepreneurship is another.  Regular entrepreneurship could also work. But how do we make that happen? Should we recruit?

Feels Like Home

A couple weekends ago my friend Athena invited me out to pick some of the flowers she planted this year at Harmony Farm. The farm sits up on a hill so that once you're there, it feels very isolated and lovely. There are some houses nearby, but not too close. The sky that day felt big and encompassing in a way that's somewhat rare when you live in the hills. She had grown beautiful long rows of sunflowers, zinnias, cosmos, bachelor buttons and nasturtium. 

I've read a lot about self-care over the last few years, and you'd be amazed how many people recommend treating yourself with flowers. These "feel better" lists get rather cliche after a while, but then again, cliches exist for a reason. Flowers can really make a girl happy.

I've been wanting to plant cosmos in my yard for years now, and this year, I finally did. I put a bunch of seeds in front of my shed, and all summer I watched the plants grow very tall and produce nothing. Not one flower. I have a particular affinity for cosmos because growing up my sister and I planted a huge row of them every year across the front of our vegetable garden. They're so delicate and beautiful, and they bloom all summer long. It's October now, and look who finally decided to make an appearance?

This is the second year I've grown dahlias. Last year I planted bulbs, and they produced a few flowers. I dug the bulbs up in the fall and stored them in the basement all winter. (I literally just threw them in a crate. I think you're supposed to take better care and store them in sawdust. It's an evolving hobby, this gardening.) I planted the bulbs this spring, and just like the cosmos, nothing happened for months. But this fall they emerged in all their glory. And they are so amazing. The perfection of all the individual flower parts is like tiny baby toes.

There's just something so good and wholesome about growing flowers. It makes me feel like home. As another friend said to me recently about (being old and) watching birds: Free Joy!

I'll take it.

How to Make It

Remember High Fidelity, where John Cusack’s character goes through a “what does it all mean” thing after a break-up? He reorganizes his entire record collection chronologically and calls all his girlfriends since junior high to try to figure out what his life is about. (I watched that movie again recently, and it's still good, in case you missed it the first time around.)

I've been going through the “what does it all mean” crisis a lot in the past few years. Partly I think this is due to major life change, but partly I think it’s my age. There are no more obvious goals to achieve! And oh, am I good at working towards a goal. If I'd been pushed too hard as a child, maybe I could blame my parents for this, but the truth is, I've been a self-motivator since about age 5, when I decided I would learn to tie my shoes on my fifth birthday.

But what do you do when there is no obvious next step to take, no new level to reach? Couple that with a few crushing life disappointments, and I feel adrift. Something feels off, and I'm just not sure what to do about it. (Accept it? That may be the answer. I'm pretty sure the exhausting pursuit of happiness is not.) There’s a whole lot of talk right now about following your life’s purpose, and while I think that’s great if you can do it, it also smacks of elitism and is eminently frustrating to those of us who have no idea what that purpose is. I'm not someone who has always dreamed of opening a restaurant but hasn't been brave enough to do it. I haven't always wished to be a writer or an artist. Aside from my fifth grade dream of going to Harvard and becoming a lawyer—which I’m pretty sure came about solely as a result of reading a whole lot of John Grisham—I’ve never had a clear idea of what I wanted to do.

About ten years ago when I was in Oregon and wrapped up in an existential crisis of the first order, my dad sent me a book written by a Buddhist nun called When Things Fall Apart. There are a lot of good bits in the book, but the one sentiment I'll never forget comes down to this: it's not that the bottom has fallen out--there never was a bottom. Not only that, but there never will be a bottom. The one certain thing in life is that there is no safety net, nothing that you can count on forever. This concept is so disturbing, I think, that people can spend their whole lives trying to prove it false. They look for financial security, for stability from long-term relationships, for a sense of purpose from being a parent. But the fact is that any one of these things can disappear at any time. The only certainty in life is uncertainty and change. 

Part of the reason it’s always been hard for me to pick a passion/purpose or even to formulate a specific career goal is that the options seem unlimited. So it was encouraging to read this interview with Ian Bogost, who suggests we find meaning in the mundane tasks we’re actually doing and stop acting like everything is possible. Instead, he asks where's the play in this situation? Which I interpret to also mean, what else can be done here? How can I make this place I'm actually in more fun for me (even if that place is your backyard, and you're mowing the lawn)? What a relief to stop imagining that everything is a possibility. It seems much more achievable to instead get curious and start looking around to see what's possible where you actually are.

And since I yet again find myself in a position of not knowing what to do, I've decided to just start making things and see where it leads. Get ready for homemade Christmas presents, friends.