Where Is “Home”? Does It Matter?

When I go back to the part of the country I most often call “home,” people tend to ask me how I like Kentucky. Usually I say, “I like it.” And then I say, “It’s not Pennsylvania, and it’s not really home, not yet, but it’s a good place.”

People these days are pretty mobile, if you haven’t noticed. Even on Facebook, most people I know list two categories: “Lives in ________” and “From ________.” Often these two places are very far apart. Very.

It’s a blessing that we can travel at the drop of a hat, that we can go and live where we are called, that we can experience the culture and community of different regions, that we can learn funny colloquialisms and crazy food choices of new friends.

But it also makes life pretty darn difficult. Families get seen only at holidays or major life events, like weddings and funerals, and sometimes then only if you’re lucky. Best friends live states away, and we have to miss birthday lunches and baby showers. When cousins marry, sometimes we’ve never met the new spouse until the wedding day.

Sure, we keep in touch thanks to amazing technology, but we get very little real-life interaction, very little face-time. We can Skype and laugh and share good news via grainy web cams, but we don’t go out to coffee or to happy hour or uncork a bottle of wine to celebrate. We can e-mail or text important messages to large numbers of people at one time, but we don’t sob together when life is hard. (Often because we don’t know when life is hard.) We see each other’s children grow up in photos, but we don’t get to feel them in our arms.

And it’s not the same thing.

There is something to lament here, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot, as I wonder about stability and putting down roots and really investing in a community here, where I’m planted.

You see, on the flip side of the “How do you like Kentucky?” question I get asked when I’m in Pennsylvania is the question I get asked a lot down here. You know what question I mean, the one that reminds me just how much I stick out? Yep. That one.

“Where are you from?”

Rarely am I asked, “Where do you call ‘home’?” Actually, I’ve never been asked that.

I’m beginning to wonder if maybe that should be our question. It tells a lot about a person. Truth is, I don’t know how I’d answer it today, and ten years from now, the answer might well be different.

But it’s not that our roots aren’t important. I will always be “from” somewhere that warms my heart, and sooty cities will probably always make it pitter-patter. I don’t fancy changing NFL allegiances any time soon or ceasing to use “awhile” to mean something like “now,” which is perfectly rational if you’re from central Pennsylvania.

It’s that it might be important to know where “home” is, too.

And sometimes it’s not the same thing.

Happy Valentine’s Day, Governor!

Today, over a thousand Kentuckians concerned about the future of our state’s environment, livelihood, culture, and people gathered on the steps of the capitol, capping off a weekend of protest that involved a handful of our local celebrities, including the more widely known Mr. Berry. This colorful group of folks carried signs, chanted chants, played music, hollered, swore a little bit, smiled a lot, passed around petitions, signed Valentine’s Day cards for the governor, and, well, supported a cause they believed in.

The “I Love Mountains” rally occurs every year about this time, around Valentine’s Day, when Congress is in session, as a way to push for clean-energy legislation and, at the same time, end mountain top removal.

I’d never been to a rally like this before, and though I’ll refrain from getting political, let me just say this:

It was pretty darn awesome.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand how complicated of a situation we find ourselves in. I know there are no easy solutions, and many of the folks I listened to today are not fair and balanced in their reporting.

But still.

Being surrounded by a group of passionate yet peaceful folks, who may be hollering but are hollering together, it was a great place to be. Old folks and young folks. Wheelchair-bound and stroller-bound. Dogs and guitars. Hippies and coal-miners. Hand-made signs and signs snazzy enough to have been used in presidential campaign. (If you’ve not read the slogans before, you might enjoy “topless mountains are obscene,” one of my favorites.)

This was a big crazy mob, and it was community.

I even got myself a new bumper sticker.

A common bumper sticker around here is “Friends of Coal.” I like this better.

Check out I Love Mountains or Mountain Justice for more information about ending mountain top removal, learning more about the process, and tracing your home’s power back to its source.

Main Street, USA

I live in a picturesque town in the middle of America.

This is my town, but not my photo. I swiped it from virtualtourist.com.

On Sunday, here on our picturesque Main Street, a handful of folks gathered to talk about homelessness and hunger in our little town, in our little county, in our little corner of rural America. You might not know that this week, the week of Thanksgiving–when most of us get to eat lots of food, visit with families, and count our blessings–is National Hunger and  Homelessness Awareness Week. Some of us who gathered were community organizers, some musicians, some just concerned citizens. I fall into the latter category.

From one concerned citizen to another, no matter where you live, here’s what I found out.

The Amen House, one of my little town’s local nonprofits that offers emergency assistance to folks in need, is giving assistance on average to 350 families per month. Did you read that correctly? 350 families, no repeats, per month. And they report to be registering approximately thirty new families each month. Remember that I live in a very little town. These are single-parent and dual-parent families, grandparent-led families, white, Hispanic, and black families. The economic crisis is affecting lots of us. There are thousands of people, even here in my little town, who don’t have enough food to eat.

Look at that photo again. Not much homelessness or hunger in sight.

But it’s there, folks.

And it’s not far from where you live either.

I guarantee it.

Country Roads and Casseroles

On Sunday we drove out to Port Royal, Kentucky, a well-known little town because of one of its inhabitants, agrarian Wendell Berry. He’s oft-quoted here at Texas Schmexas, and a lot of other places these days, so I’m sure you recognize the name. I promise you, however, that Mr. Berry was not the reason for our drive (though I am pleased to have seen “the long-legged house” with my own eyes).

Port Royal is in Henry County, a little over an hour from here with nary an interstate between us–lots of tobacco, though, hanging in old black barns decorated with colorful quilt squares (and “Mail Pouch Tobacco”) painted on the side, and fuzzy brown cows, and trees getting ready for winter, and a smattering of houses masquerading as towns. In fact, I only remember two or three little “towns” in that whole hour of driving, but one was called “Gratz,” reminding me of beloved central Pennsylvania and warming my heart. We wove our way around the country roads, carefully keeping track of road signs, when there were road signs to be kept track of.

Port Royal, population of 79 in recent years according to Wikipedia, is home to two churches, a post office, a farm/feed/food store (which may or may not be a restaurant), and little else. We were in town for the Baptist church, where friends of our were preaching.

We were greeted as we walked up the steps and were encouraged to join in teasing an older fellow as if we were old friends. He ended up sitting in front of us (or, I’m sure, we sat behind his regular pew and it was coincidental), and from him we learned the history of lots of folks around town–the young pregnant couple who ran an organic farm and farm stand, the former interim preacher who won the “outstanding Henry Countian” award, his grandsons who were in from Florida for hunting season… you name it, we heard it.

Just before the “greet your neighbor” portion of the service, the gentleman at the pulpit announced that “we want to especially welcome our visitors here today,” and looked right at us. (I know we literally “stick out” in normal circumstances, due to our massive heights, but still, it made me chuckle to be called out from the pulpit.) This was a classic country church experience, though with a larger choir than expected, and I’m not sure what else to say.

Glimpses into other people’s otherwise normal communities, especially churches, can do a lot of good for one’s soul–it can help you realize what you appreciate about your own community. Or, let’s rephrase that: it can help me realize what I appreciate about my own community. I don’t often appreciate it, truth be told, even as I sit in front of my computer on a (somewhat) regular basis and write about it.

After church, we were welcomed into the home of a beautiful Henry County couple with an amazing view out over the trees. We ate lunch and we talked–about church, about people, about Henry County, our families, recipes, books, and, of course, Mr. Berry, who lived just over the hill and had known these folks since elementary school. We ate way too much casserole, stewed apples, bread, salad, broccoli, and oh-my-goodness pecan pie. And they tried to make us eat more. I wasn’t sure I could move. In fact, I wasn’t even hungry nine hours later as I was getting ready for bed (and not eating a bowl of cereal right before bed is not like me).

It was a good day with good folks in a good place.

Yes, you know it’s coming: it was community.

school buses, morning commutes, and drive-through communities

I’ve been  hitting the road by 6:45 on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday mornings. Okay, so I’ve tried leaving a little later than that, but since I find traffic unbearable, I’d rather go earlier and have a few extra minutes of breathing time. I am not a patient person, despite evidence to the contrary.

Here in Kentucky, elementary school students begin school earlier than middle-school and high-school students. Apparently studies have shown that high school students’ brains don’t function at 7 am, which explains a lot as far as I’m concerned. So around here the little tykes begin really early, so early in fact, that they’re waiting for the bus when I’m breezing through their neighborhoods on the outskirts of [Closest City to My House].

Lots of people avoid driving on the road I take to get to work/school–it’s a two-lane road, and the traffic gets bad with very little cause, and well, I don’t know why else, but a lot of people avoid it. I can’t talk myself into going another way, though, because it’s the most direct route into town.

I’ve been known to tell people that there isn’t anything between my little town and above-mentioned City, except for the liquor stores on the county line (my county is “moist,” which means you can only purchase alcohol in restaurants) and horse farms. But guess what? That’s not true (about there not being anything between them, not about the liquor stores).

Sure, there’s the “Kentucky Horse Park,” home to the World Equestrian Games in less than three weeks from now (which will not make my morning commute very pleasant), but that’s not what I mean.

The school bus for the elementary kids stops on this very busy, two-lane road, right during rush hour, and over the last few weeks, I’ve found myself sitting and waiting for little hordes of children to board and then find a place to sit on their buses.

I like this forced slow-down (then again, I give myself a half-hour cushion). I like the slow-down because it makes me pay attention. It makes me see the lower-income housing I’d otherwise drive right by, the shady-looking motels with weekly rates, the communities of mobile homes, the small, square cottages within ten feet of their neighbors, the restaurant that’s been under different ownership at least three times in the two years we’ve lived here (the most recent incarnation advertising “Karaoke and Cold Beer”). It’s a lot easier to see these places when you’re at a stand-still.

Most of the time, I drive right on by. I listen to my Over the Rhine at really loud volumes, singing along with Karin Bergquist’s smooth vocals, wishing I were as awesome as she is, and quite frankly, I don’t look around very much. Even the picturesque white picket fences, enormous horse barns, and blind-folded thoroughbreds (which, by the way, are in quite close proximity to patches of poverty, a juxtaposition that isn’t talked about very often in these parts but is striking) are lost on the drive.

But then the red flashing light of the school bus forces me to stop, and I see the little boy in the navy blue pants and light blue oxford button-down shirt (do they wear uniforms here?) is getting on the bus for the first day of school. His parents–a less-than-reputable-looking couple trying to hold back tears, I really could see that, as they wave and point at him as he makes his way to his seat on the bus–the parents hug as the bus pulls away and I drive by them, and I can’t help but wonder about this entire world that exists outside of my life.

It’s easy to drive through and ignore the life around us that doesn’t affect our lives.

But that’s community, too.

So let’s not drive on by, okay?

Let’s not.

Tenure Year & What Makes Home “Home”

It’s amazing to me that my husband is up for tenure this year at the small liberal arts college where he teaches. Not that I’m surprised he made it to this point–his whole academic career has been heading this direction since we married nearly ten years ago. No, what amazes me is that the tenure decision falls at the end of the sixth year of teaching.

The sixth year of teaching.

That means this is our sixth year in Kentucky. Who can believe it?

I like it here.

I like our small town, and our fixer-upper house, and our friends who’ve become aunties to my baby girl. I like that my husband can walk to work, that my neighbor and I have a standing walking date with our strollers on weekday mornings at 9 am. I like that people use “Derby Day” (the first Saturday in May) as a marker of time as often as they use “Mother’s Day.” I like that when we go to the grocery store we always see at least a half-dozen folks from church. Or the nurse from the doctor’s office. Or the cashier from the post office. I like that on rainy days like today when the temperature is predicted to drop, people kind of freak out about the potential snow.

But you know what?

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Accidental Community & The Death of Clarissa

I believe the story goes that when I got married nine years ago, the hubster and I were such cheapskates in our wedding planning that my mom rewarded us by giving us a hand-me-down car. It was a Jeep Grand Cherokee, but since we were about to drive across the country to our new home in Texas, we traded my brother for his 2001 Ford Focus ZX3.

I named her Clarissa, after Virginia Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway, because one of my favorite lines in all of literature is the simplicity of the last line of Mrs. Dalloway: “For there she was.”

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Popcorn and chocolate and candles, oh my!

A few minutes ago, I heard the creak of our storm door open and then a weak knock on the door itself. I had just finished feeding the beanster and didn’t feel like padding over to check who it was, especially because I didn’t feel like dealing with door-to-door sales folks. (No, I do not want to buy fifty pounds of steak, thank you. No, I do not want you to trim my trees, thank you. No, I do not want to accept your religious tract, thank you.) It’s a gray, cold, and dreary day, though, so I thought maybe it was something more important than your typical sales pitch.

I carried Little Bean to the door because babies are always a good out when you don’t want to talk to someone, and I peered through the half-circle window. It was a little boy. I opened the door.

“Here’s your candle,” he announced, reaching a small brown box out to me. “Have a good day!” And then he wandered off down the street in his rain coat, probably chilled to the bone, poor thing.

He was delivering the fundraiser items he’d sold a few weeks ago.

I looked at this little box. It was definitely the candle I’d ordered–I’d requested “bourbon” scented, and it was quite fragrant–but it was much, much smaller than I expected it to be.

I had, after all, paid $18 for it.

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Welcome to our menagerie?

So… remember how I mentioned we had a rabbit (and a snake) that lived in our backyard? The snake had actually taken up residence in our basement temporarily but was removed to the yard by a brave husband. So no worries there.

The rabbit on the other hand, which has grown quite large, was a bit of a worry when we transplanted our lettuce, spinach, and cabbage babies, so the husband put up a fence around the garden. Unfortunately, we realized he’d put the wire part on upside down, so that the bigger gaps were at the bottom–plenty of room for a rabbit to squeeze through. But fortunately, this rabbit is a strange creature, and likes to perch itself just outside the fence, and sneak its head in through the fence to eat the clover and weeds growing on our garden path, but not venture into the garden itself. So, as it turns out, no worries there either.

A week or two ago, our housemate commented on the rabbit, which she can see on a regular basis out her bedroom window. She likened our yard to a “menagerie,” which seemed like an exaggeration. I mean, it’s just a rabbit and snake. Yeah, yeah, sometimes we have neighborhood dogs meander through, chased by their owners, and sometimes the fat white cat named Sugar who belongs to the older woman across the street hides out in our shrubs, but still. A menagerie?

Well then. Enter Frou-Frou.

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Suffer the little children: A Story of Neighborly Community

Last night, as our unseasonably warm weather hovered above eighty degrees, I found myself standing barefoot in our driveway, hunched over corrugated plastic signs, spraypainting them orange.

J has been organized a 5k for an upcoming anti-human trafficking conference at the college, and part of that organization means making the signs to point the runners in the correct direction at every intersection. While he was in the basement cutting out a stencil for the words and arrows that would appear in black on each sign, I was dousing their backgrounds with orange–both the color of our local college and the color of freedom.

This simple act of spraypainting a dozen signs was enough to prompt the curiosity of a handful of neighborhood children.

Now, let me remind you that I was hot and gross-feeling to begin with, and on top of my swollen ankles and feet, and enormous abdomen, I was not the cheeriest of neighbors. But one little boy rode his bicycle down our driveway and jumped off of it, announcing, “You have a rabbit in your yard!”

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