Parts Of Me Come And Go
by Katie Myers
Our bodies are sore from sitting and listening this week. My mind and body disconnect sometimes when I’m tired like this. At school they called it attention deficit disorder. With my hands in my lap and my butt in a seat, my mind gets up and takes a walk. I’m in Tennessee, leafy, damp Tennessee; but my mind is in sun-baked Arizona, where thousands of innocent families are being held in detention camps. I have just come from two months out in the desert, working in solidarity with border crossers; the dust kicked up by Border Patrol trucks still catches in my throat, and the silence of the Sonoran night sky hums in my memory. But I’m here now, and I have to focus.
We’re sitting in Hemphill, Kentucky. One of our hosts is telling us his story. He didn’t mean to tell it, it just came out. We’re always asking people to stay in Appalachia, he says. He says, I wasn’t ready. He says, I’m not ready. He says, maybe I will never be ready. Parts of me come and go, he tells us, bending forward, head thrust out before his body, speaking into his hands. Parts of me wander out into the world and then wander back home, my mind and my heart and my ears and my mouth, all spread between the place I live, and my once and future place. His is one of the many tales we’ve been told, during our orientation as Appalachian Transition Fellows.
We’ve been told fantastical tales this week. Fairy tales, even, some beautiful and some sordid. There’s one about a Newport, Tennessee drag queen. She has a name from outer space, a name that gives birth to stars: Nebula. She performs in the town of Newport, Tennessee, where she gleefully points to the church she went to as a child and shrieks, elated, I grew up over there!!
There’s another fairy tale to be found in the town of Big Ugly, West Virginia. Some kids in the area, I was told, made up a creation story about their home: that a drunk giant, dragged home by his wife at night, carved the deep holler with his toe.
Then there’s the sordid ones: the kind that academics tell community members sometimes in the course of their research, saying, This is for you; I’ll bring it back to you when I’m done. The stranger makes a promise: the stranger leaves, gets a PHD, and never returns. Or the kind that self-styled job creators tell. “This manufacturing plant will bring a hundred jobs to your community!” though it’s another story once the plant opens. Or else, a well-intentioned organization smoothing over the rougher parts of Appalachia, smoothing over truths of hardship and pain, to tell a story about what they call “the greatest place on earth”: a made-up land that exists only in pamphlets and powerpoints.
In the mountains you have to backtrack sometimes to get where you’re going: South to Pikeville to get north to Charleston, east to Bristol to get northwest towards Harlan. In Cumberland Gap, Tennessee, we drove a ways down a dirt road and gave up and turned around. People that live around there probably take that road; it’s the quickest way between Morristown and the Clearfork Valley. These roads aren’t on a map. But they will get you there if you can find them and you have the wheels to take you.
If you don’t have the wheels, turn back and take another road: that way is longer, but there’s no shame in it. There’s no shame in taking the road you’re equipped to take, or coming back with the right wheels next time. To think about what parts of us and what parts of history we are taking to the future, what we need to remember of the struggles of the past, to accept history as it is, without denying or dwelling on it. There’s no shame in stopping to think as we talk about “transitional economics” and justice in our places, stopping to think about what do we mean? And who are we giving power to? And who are we taking it from?
That day we got stuck on the dirt road and turned around felt like a blessing. The rain had just stopped and a rainbow was following us over the ridgeline. “We’re the gayest cohort ever,” we said, with a laugh but also with pride: how lucky are we to have one another, when we know full well how it feels to be alone? In the middle of so many parts of us coming and going, in between history and memory, we have each other to hold onto. Between us we can parse out some truths, or sides of the truth, and carve a path forward. Parts of us are scattered throughout this place and we are collecting them, as quick as we can and as slow as we need, so that people here can come and go whole, as they please.