Driving down Hilltop into Oliver Springs, my eyes stray to the mountains, drawn, as always, by the figure of the giant sleeping woman in the hills. I admire the twin peaks of her breasts, the soft hill of her rounded belly, her knobby knee caps and the smooth ridge that delineates her mile long legs.
She is so beautiful! I have loved this woman since I was a child. I am her child. My bones and flesh are made of her dusty bones and flesh.
Like me, she sleeps flat on her back, like a corpse, hands folded on her upper chest. One day, I know I’ll close my eyes for the last time and sleep with her forever. I do not dread that day.
A child of these fertile green hills and mountains, I belong here. I will not leave East Tennessee; I will not leave my mother.
“He saw me sitting in the audience and he knew I’d call him out.” She sounded proud of herself.
“Why would you do that?” I queried.
“Because he’s NOT Appalachian. He’s from Michigan,” she said.
“So what? He’s been here over forty years,” I said. “I knew him in the early seventies in Knoxville. He used to play the hammered dulcimer for us to dance at the Laurel Theater. Nobody’s done more for Appalachian culture than he has.”
“I’ve known him a long time too, she said. “He’s NOT Appalachian.”
“ I think he's earned the right to call himself whatever he wants. I guess in your book, I’m not Appalachian either,” I said.
“You’re not!” Her tone was emphatic.
“What? I was born and raised in Oak Ridge at the foot of Wind Rock Mountain. I’ve been playing the mountain dulcimer since I was a little girl. My mother was a farm girl from Sugar Tree, Tenn. and yes, my dad was Hispanic from Texas, but so what? If I’m not Appalachian, then, pray tell, what am I?”
“I don’t know but you’re not Appalachian,” she countered.
“I don’t give a tinker damn what you think,” I replied, my voice rising.
I watched her mouth work in angry silence for a moment. Then, my fellow workshop attendees and I watched as the self appointed guardian of all things Appalachian slammed the front door and, like Elvis, left the building.
I was riding back from dinner with another workshop attendee. Passing the last gas station before the tunnel, my eyes fixated on a caravan of over sized pick up trucks loaded with middle aged white men flying Confederate flags.
They didn’t strike me as a particularly successful or prosperous looking bunch. They were, by and large, a scruffy assortment in faded blue jeans and tee shirts, mostly pudgy, gone to fat, men who likely knew their best days were behind them as soon as they graduated from high school.
Watching them, I couldn’t help but remember my father’s wry remark when I was in high school and boys used to drag up and down Delaware Avenue honking their horns to get my attention. It worked: I nearly always ran to the window. Daddy, however, was unimpressed:
“Martha, boys who honk their horns like that can't do anything else."
Forty years later, Daddy would likely say something similar about these Confederate cowboys in their run down pick up trucks. As my companion and I descend the mountain and enter the tunnel, I hear my long dead father’s voice:
“Martha, men who parade around flying Confederate flags can't do anything else."
In the past, just being white would have afforded these same men a leg up, but not any more. The country is changing and they know it. Behind the bravado, they’re probably scared of being left behind and they will be, if they don't adapt.
"Get on board, little children
There's room for many a more"
I’m sitting on the couch in my peaceful little house in the woods when I see a small news item: the Trump administration has re-designed the presidential seal, replacing ‘en pluribus unum” with his campaign catch phrase “Make America Great Again.”
Current events and the president’s own rhetoric suggest that “Make America Great Again” is code for “Make America White (and male dominated) Again.”
I shake my head in sorry disbelief: the President and his adherents are living in an a hopelessly dated dream world. The train’s already left the station; demographic trends reveal that by the middle of this century, whites will be a minority in this country. In a lot of places, they already are.
The American melting pot, including Appalachia, is fast tracking toward a varied and infinitely interesting mixture of languages, cultures and colors. We will never be a nation of WASPs (White Anglo Saxon Protestants) again.
The future is knocking. Like it or not, answer we shall!
Lunch break's over. After my little briggazee with my fellow workshop attendee, we all sit uncomfortably, looking down. Time to play nice, I think.
She apologizes first. Tells me what she really meant to say is that I’m not a traditional Appalachian, that traditional Appalachians are of Scottish and Irish descent and I’m not that. Okay, I can take that fairly gracefully (though that’s not entirely true on my mother’s side of the family) and accept her apology.
Following her example, I half heartedly apologize too, mostly for imposing an unnecessary and unpleasant scene on everyone present. After apologies have been made, we slog through the last couple of hours remaining in our workshop.
But at three o’clock, I’m relieved to go home. She probably is too.
On the two hour drive home, I puzzle over what happened. The whole episode still niggles at me.
Don’t we all have the right to define ourselves? What kind of arrogance does it take to tell another person what he or she is? And what makes people want to hoard the insularity of their own little group, as if they were safeguarding diamonds?
It’s a question that looms large not just between two cantankerous old women at a workshop, but currently challenges and vexes much of the country, especially since the inauguration of President Trump.
Who gets to decides who belongs and who gets 'thrown off the island?'
I was the instigator of that little workshop tiff over a year ago. The self appointed guardian of all thing Appalachian with whom I tangled dropped out of the remaining workshop sessions, opting for private meetings with the instructor instead.
I guess I ran her off. I'm not proud of that. But I am proud of standing up for myself, for claiming the right to define who I am and to what tribe I belong.
It’s been two years since Trump was inaugurated and issues of race, religion and belonging have intensified on the national scene, with the Muslim travel ban, testing of the ‘Border Wall’ prototypes, and the violence in Charlottesville. Further, the so called Dreamers, the sons and daughters immigrants who were brought here illegally as children, are still living in the unresolved nightmare of limbo while ICE deportations proceed at an unprecedented and unmerciful pace.
I have a hunch that all of our possessive impulses, both personal and national, are motivated by a sense of scarcity and fear that there won’t be enough to go around. It’s true that resources aren’t allotted equitably in this country. Many people, especially children, don’t have adequate food, housing, education or or access to opportunities. It’s also true that a number of people, the super rich, have far more than any reasonable person could need.
How much is too much? How much is too little? And why don’t we aim for a society in which consumption is dictated by the general welfare instead of a dog eat dog ethos?
Jesus and his little band of followers were living demonstrations of the plenty principle. Like the loaves and fishes, if we’re grateful, take what we need and share, there will be enough for everybody and our lives will be enriched by a sense of community.
'Community' is such a lovely word; isn’t that what we all long for, a sense of community, of belonging to something larger than ourselves? Healthy communities aren’t closed; they welcome newcomers and are enriched by people bringing a variety of new ideas, talents and material resources.
Closed communities don’t thrive. Most don’t even go down in a blaze of glory, but fizzle out, killed by the stale, hackneyed, boring and monotonous.
I don’t know exactly where I’m going with all of these thoughts. I’m not prescient and can’t see where our country is going, I just know it’s going somewhere. Life doesn’t stand still for anyone or any nation.
I see a stark choice in the near future. We can either extend an inclusive, welcoming hand to others, regardless of color, ethnicity or religion and thrive as a nation, or we can shut ourselves off and collapse like a slow dying star, falling inward into a black hole of our own making.
I sit in bed, drinking coffee, gazing out the back window. The trees are naked and seem to shiver in the cold gray light. The wild rhododendrons are my thermometers. I can see by the way their leathery leaves are folded tight against the dormant buds, that it's frigid out.
Wind Rock Mountain is just visible across the narrow valley. There's a giant cross on that mountain, a scar from an abandoned strip mine some twenty if not thirty or more years old. That scar should have healed by now, but it never has.
The cross on the mountain, like the giant sleeping woman, has come to define the mountains for me. The mountain vista is my ground of being. In my bones, I am a mountain woman, an Appalachian, the granddaughter of immigrants from Mexico, England and Ireland, and a loyal, ardent, vocal American.
I remember when I was a little girl and Mrs. Thomas called me a 'little half breed.' She meant it as an insult. Now I take her insult as a compliment. My life and personality are made richer by having grown up with a foot in more than one culture: Tex Mex on my father's side, West Tennessee farmers on my mother's side, and the good people of the Appalachian Mountains who taught me how to play the Appalachian dulcimer when I was a little girl and generously shared their songs and stories with me.
I think of myself as a vessel, an open container eager to be filled with everything and everybody beautiful, wholesome and good. That's what I want for my children. For everybody else's children too. For everybody in this long suffering world.
Be well, good luck and Happy New Year,