Last evening, the first of many small dinner gatherings I hope to have over the summer took place on the deck of my country home. We talked, laughed, and ate as we watched the sun's golden rays set the native grasses of the Stanford Hills aglow as the distant magical city of San Francisco faded into the purples and pinks and delicate fog of the night sky. In some ways, it felt about as far from my native home in Appalachia as one could get; and yet, from the vantage point of what passes for a farm in Silicon Valley, the duality of my existence as a well-educated coal miner's daughter sprang to the forefront of the conversation in an unexpected way: over dirt.
Later this summer, some friends and I are going camping in the desert, and there's a real quandary over whether one should rent vehicles to do this sort of camping or take one's own car and gear. Apparently, the dirt, once it gets into your stuff, may never come out. The desert dust has a "soapy" feel, one friend described, and, apparently, it sticks to the crevices of everything somewhat permanently. Nothing new taken there will ever be new again. There was a general consensus that one does not take new stuff to camp in the desert, for it will be ruined if it gets dirty. It took my oldest friend at the table piping up with "maybe she doesn't view getting things dirty as a negative" for me to frame the situation, and the solution, in my mind. He is right; I do not care about getting things dirty -- not my hands, not my car, and not my life. Out of the greatest messes, the greatest experiences are born. (Should I invoke the metaphor of childbirth here, where the initial mess is cleaned up but oh, how the scars -- and product -- remain?!) Knowing myself well, the dust in my camper will bring a smile to my face every time I come across it, for it will remind me that I lived a little. I will not die wishing that I had not gotten dirt in my car -- but I will certainly die, at least a little inside, if I do not start opening myself to a new mess of experiences. As yesterday's dinner came on the heels of news that one of my dear friend's other friends had just passed away suddenly at age 51, we are all too aware that life can be a lot different than we planned -- and unfortunately, sometimes that means a lot shorter. We come from dirt, and we return to it -- ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
As I write this post today, it is West Virginia's 150th birthday -- so the reminder of who I am and who I want to be that was borne from last night's conversation is, in many ways, appropriate. I am at a point in my life where my present-day identity is changing: I am no longer a wife, still somebody's mother (times two), a worker by contract ... And I am exactly two months away from turning forty years old. Who am I? What am I doing here? What is my purpose? I started reflecting on this especially hard when my grandfather passed away a couple of months back, and it has occupied a great deal of mindspace ever since. I am at a juncture where I can redefine myself. We should all have this luxury -- and that, really, is what it is. It is so easy to get stuck being who we think we are supposed to be, or, far worse, like I did: being who other people think we should be. We need to stop from time to time and do a reality-check with ourselves. And if we are not living as we wish to live, it is never ever too late to push the reset button.
And I am resetting to be a West Virginian again.
What does that mean? No, wild and wonderful family, it does not mean that I am moving "home." It means that I am returning to the things I learned as a child that I forgot until I needed to remember them -- thinks like getting dirty, literally and metaphorically.
Getting dirty can be an uncomfortable thing. One way to get dirty is by gathering dust, which happens when one is unmoving. (The back of my TV is evidence of that.) That is pretty unexciting. But another way to get dirty is by taking some risks and trying something out of our comfort zone. I am not encouraging sullying oneself for no reason -- but for me, one example is that I am thinking of taking up snowboarding again, bruises be damned. I can live in fear, clean and unbroken, or I can come close to flying and risk defiling myself while becoming more whole than I ever will become while sitting here collecting dust. I harken back to a childhood riding BMX bikes off of auto tire ramps into piles of leaves and think: that was worth it.
The dirt beneath my fingers has become important to me once again as well. My kids and I have planted a couple of gardens, and last night's dinner ended with lemon cupcakes made from my own tree and lavender truffles made from my own lavender. As a dinner guest noted, "am I really eating that local, like ten feet away from the plant?" I love answering "yes" to that. In the fall, I will invite him back for pumpkin pie from our own patch, several other kinds of squash from my own garden, persimmons and olives from our giving trees.
The kids and I also are spending more time together off-line, especially taking hikes to animal-spot. We have both cottontail bunnies and jackrabbits living under the deck of our barn. Deer sleep on the porch off of my master bedroom. Foxes, quail, California condors, red-tailed hawks: all here. Lizards are everywhere, and we see the occasional king snake. We saw none of these things in the city just seven miles down the road. It is magical, and it is just like my own childhood.
Yet the biggest difference of all is in my own priorities, especially with regard to connectedness. I entertained a lot in my old life, but those gatherings were bigger, less personal, and pretty rarely for my own purposes. Now, I value "visiting," as my grandma would call it, all the more. I want to have regular summer deck dinners for friends from different circles to meet. One of the things I feared about divorce was the social shift: would I lose friends over this? Lo and behold, my circle has grown with more new friendship than I ever could have imagined. It is nothing short of miraculous, and I am loving integrating the old and the new (or in some cases, the renewed) into my changed life.
West Virginians do it right, you see, to a fault. We garden like nobody's business. We get our hands, and our vehicles, pretty dirty. Then we go to each other's houses to visit, eating pie made from berries from our gardens and getting to know each other's kids. We look out for each other. We do not care if our houses are perfect or who has more or less. We show up, and we nourish each other inside and outside at the same time. I doubt I knew a millionaire in my home state, yet we all lived with an abundance that is absent from Silicon Valley. Being a West Virginian involves a richness and depth of the soul that one cannot imagine if one grew up in a big, clean house with professionally-organized stuff and Whole Foods and rental campers and maids to clean it all up after us. Being West Virginian is far messier and, thus, far more real in the best possible way.
I have spent more of my life running from being a West Virginian than I have embracing that I am who I am because of the very place in which I took my first steps, played with cousins daily, swam in a creek, hopped in the back of a pick-up truck for a hay ride, planted a seed, and saw the stars in a country sky unblemished by the ruinous lights of a business life.
That running stops now, and I will remember who I am as my new car tows my new camper to the desert, where we will all get a little bit dirty this summer. The desert dirt may be quite different from that of my farm, but that primal connection that I feel toward the earth I was born to appreciate will be quite the same, for we come from that dirt, and it is to that dirt we will one day return...
... but not yet. I have some lovely messes to embrace, and I will bask in every glorious one.
Happy Birthday, West Virginia, my Mountain Mama, my truest home.