Unable to sleep, I know somewhere in my body something is very wrong. Pain in my shoulder and hips and worry create the syndrome. We had word in my neighborhood that someone vandalized our water treatment plant. Water is the essence of me – of all of us – but for a double Pisces, it’s life complete. I feel the water in me is befouled and going for tests on my kidneys in 2 days, I feel acutely aware of it. There was a stone and a possible mass, one in each. I want water, nothing but water – but drinking the water now feels unsafe.
It got very cold tonight too. The house got cold but my being cold at night, shaking with cold for weeks now is far outsized to the physical cold itself.
I feel like West Virginia, the State I just left. Its clear streams and rich soil, in places polluted by mine runoff, whole tops of mountains lopped off for mining, the very shape of earth altered for the convenience of the exploiters. Paraplegic after an accident 11 years past, the runoff in my stream and the lopping off of my mountaintop pollute and dull me. How many medicines I take daily, have taken for years, changing my makeup and the shape of my mind and body.
West Virginia felt like a different planet. I didn’t get to meet too many people. For one thing, the roads were empty. I was driving for hours through winding mountain passes. There were few towns and where there were, hardly any people. Houses looked empty though some were lit. Children weren’t playing in playgrounds. People weren’t walking on the streets. The only action seemed to be at the roadside bars which sported signs for pool games within. Even then, I saw cars lined up against the backdrop of the mountain, but no people.
I had not brought enough water. I was thirsty for 4 hours. I saw no place to stop for water and the few possible spots, I was afraid to stop. I remembered West Virginia as a dark and desperate State without kindness or scruple. I chose the path of security and thirst and stayed in the van, driving, driving.
The AAA folks led me wrong and sent me on a bizarre path through the most winding mountain roads. Each time I’d see a National Park sign, I would sigh, knowing another series of steep inclines and declines was before me.
However, the 7 hour drive was explosive with beauty. Streams and rivers, any of which could have made a perfect postcard scratched their way across mountains, hissing their joy. Rockfaces with lichen for eyes and smiles looked over the highway with grave and superior beauty. The snows were gone and the spring flowers were a few weeks away yet, but spring peeked its nose out of every corner with a teasing glance. I dared to stop for a few minutes by the river and sat just resting my eyes and listening to the perfect sound of rushing water. Water. Water.
My cell phone didn’t work for any of the ride because of the high mountains. Finally towards the end of my way, I saw a convenience store and pulled over intuitively. There was a young woman outside smoking. She was an employee. I pulled over and asked her for water and to help me use the phone. It was raining now and she generously helped me dial the pay phone from the car as I couldn’t reach it through the window. That failing, she (dripping now) went into the store and brought me out 3 gallons of water. I paid her, forgetting even to give her a tip, though she probably made $4.95 an hour. I remember her particularly because of her smile. It was truly sweet and apologetic. It spread across her face without her permission as if she’d needed to smile to get by in life. I imagined she had brothers and fathers to please. I wasn’t sure how much of my projection was psychic hits and how much was prejudice and fear, but my impressions lodged deep in me. As far as I was concerned she was the Goddess of Water.
I drank and drank and at her suggestion, tried the cell phone a few miles further in the “downtown” of Marlinton.
Raina was glad to hear from me as I was 4 hours late by now. She said I was close. She’d wait to eat with me.
The land hugged me like a cradle. I focused my eyes once more on the last bit of road, turning back once to try a second route when the fog was blinding. Luck walked beside me. It was more good than bad, the land won out over my fear.
However, I hadn’t realized Raina would live in a town as bombed out looking as this! Her store was on the main street, but it might as well have been a lost corner of Harlem. Entering the town, one did see some beautiful murals painted on the walls. I knew Raina was responsible for some of these: they depicted lumberjacks and coal-miners and the beauties of nature the state prided itself on. I knew there had been a serious coal-mining accident in this town a few years back when the mines were active. The town had been wounded deeply and not yet recovered.
As I wound my way down the only street in town, I saw that the layout of the town was a circular bowl rising from the valley up the mountain. Rows upon rows of small houses were stacked up on the hills. One can see every other house in town from almost any spot. Houses were laid out close together, I found out later because they had been built for the workers in the mines by the companies, heated originally through one long gas line which ran through them all. Heat was necessary for the workers to work and it’s damned cold in West Virginia. So the company bosses paid for the oil as part of the paycheck.
Today, the coal company had taken what they wanted and the town had gone from 20,000 people to about 3,000. There is no work. Raina told me there is no need to fill out paper work to get assistance from the government. There are no jobs to apply for so unemployment is given out upon request. As poor as people are, there is also so much “on the dole” for the “poor people of Appalachia” such that absurd realities ensue as truckloads of donations arrive regularly, the residents never knowing what will be given this week. Books can be bought at the library for a dollar a bag because tons of books are donated. Once an entire 18 -wheeler arrived full of Certs! The goodwill store is a give-away store. Everything is free. Raina gets medical care from PAP smears to psychiatry for absolutely no cost without the formality of an application for paperwork. In a sense, West Virginia has achieved socialized medicine ahead of the rest of the States!
I was still in my anxiety as Raina told me to park on the main street and come into her store. Every other building had smashed windows and tar-paper blackening the facades. Some buildings had been burnt completely within, leaving bare shells of structure. I understood now how Raina had been able to buy several houses and the store she worked out of on her meager artist salary. It was hard to imagine anyone wanting to buy in this barren land. I was baffled as to what she was doing here! She told me later that one can rent a 3 bedroom house in Greenwood for $150/month. It’s like I’d gone back to 1960 economics. But not quite. Because of the difficulty getting supplies to Greenwood deep in the mountains, food is expensive because it has to be brought in on such difficult roads. That is, expensive— if it’s not free.
In this upside-down world, I took courage in hand, hugged my friend and left my van by the edge of main street, aware of that well-known feeling the haves feel towards the have-nots – fear that out of jealousy and need, they will be hurt or robbed. In this town, everyone knew everyone, so anyone I was to meet would know immediately I was an outsider. And there were not too many outsiders.
I knew that Raina after a year and a half living in Greenwood had begun to be less of an outsider, but that it took a great deal to belong to this exclusive set of the downtrodden. In spite of the fact that they have been abused and misused by the moguls of big business in coal and timber, in spite of the fact that the fat cats had ravaged their lives and their bodies to scoop the riches out of the earth and cut timber from the land like sheering a sheep, in spite of the fact that having been left hanging out to dry after the businessmen had used them up and children and fathers had perished in a horrible accident, people in the town were loathe to change. What was known, was familiar was cherished – what was left was cherished, held onto for dear life. People resented Raina and her friends bringing back life to the town much as a dying person might resent the doctors once they’ve given up hope of survival when the doctors want to try a new type of medicine or surgery.
60% of the town are over 65, Raina tells me later. Most of them were miners. The young people have left to a large extent. Those that are left, mingle with a few who came to West Virginia for the oddest of reasons. There are a number of “Rainbow” people – young hippy types of which Raina is one who are called there for some reason. There are those who come because of the ravishing beauty of the land. There are those trying to escape the mundane, the sameness of mainstream city culture in 2007. Some of these have formed a loose bandage around the arm of this city and are trying to bring it back to life.
Raina tells me there are more octogenarians in the town per capita than any other place in the States: the New York Times did a piece on it. People live long there for several reasons: the pure clear water (Greenwood is out of the path of any mine runoff now), the clear and magnificent air and the fact that since the whole town is on a mountain, everything is built on steps and it keeps people active for much longer. Somehow, this seems to trump the alcoholism and the white-bread nutrition. Though many people do keep gardens which may make a big difference It is a deep part of the culture and lifestyle and the soil is the richest anywhere. It is born of the mountain and has never been farmed. 100s of years of silt have created topsoil several feet deep. Raina told me that grass simply springs to life in empty places; one never has to plant it. She had flowers all through her shop this early spring which she planted from seed.
I always admired her spunk and once again, was amazed by Raina’s sheer strength of spirit. She was strong physically too, helping me get down the street to her store which was accessible. On the way, we passed a used bookstore among a few others. The owner of the used bookstore came out to greet us. “He’s crazy,” Raina whispered, “We’ll try to move on quickly.”
He was whiskered and thin, with a wobbly smile and the shaky stature of schizophrenia. He babbled about offering something to Raina for her garden. It may have been actual, but she was quick to smile, thank him and move on. I wasn’t afraid of him. In fact, I was starting not to be afraid anymore. The upside-down world was beginning to make some sense when I accepted that there was a different kind of sense here. The realization that all of life is one stream was beginning to return to me. That putting myself outside the stream was shifting. And continued to shift for me the next 2 days of my visit.
Raina store was like her, overflowing with abundance and the dust of poverty. She had a beautiful computer she was working at and we worked for 3 hours or so to finish the CD cover, my “reason for coming”. While she worked on shadowing and color, I wheeled about the store. Her talent was like that grass that grew up in empty lots – it couldn’t help itself. Her art spanned a dozen mediums. Canvases were stacked in corners, in every available spot. A small refrigerator and futon betrayed that she’d lived in the store for months before her house came together to buy. A little back outdoor patio leaned into the mountain, an old and very serviceable stone wall marking its boundary. In many ways, I loved it. I loved the fecundity, but of course I wished I could order it, put it into rows, make it clean and sane. How people can live in such clutter amazed me. But her talent wasn’t hindered by it. Perhaps, indeed, it fed her work. In spite of the history of canvases stacked about, she told me she wasn’t interested in any of the old stuff really. She was moving forward, forward with her work. She was fully and totally in West Virginia now, working to get a commission to do murals on the State capitol, doing portraits of families and children – still a fashion in the State – and at the moment, helping me with her marvelous graphic design sense, to get this CD cover to fruition finally.
This made an impact upon me. Later Cam Stewart, the mayor asked me, “What are your dreams?” I haven’t been asked that in so long. Moving forward into my future, I came up blank. I had no ambition save to live day to day offering whatever I have to the world and receiving what is given. But this was definitely a place where some people anyway, came with dreams. It was still the land of homesteading, of building, of independence and pride in creating something from nothing.
I began now to meet people – not a lot at once, but sparingly, the way the earth would throw up a daisy here and there. There just weren’t that many people in a 3000 population town! We went to the Pizza Hut, the only restaurant that served fresh vegetables in the town – to their salad bar, which was excellent. And the woman who had just taken over the running of the restaurant prepared us a fantastic pizza. It was like no Pizza Hut I’d ever been in. It was Sunday night – large pizza on sale for $9.99. I paid for dinner and was glad Raina had some pizza to take home. I knew she lived pretty hand-to-mouth. The woman who ran the pizza place was named Susan Sassy. Everyone called her Sassy Susan. She was round and tough, the way many West Virginia women were. But she was nice to us. Raina has her fans in the town. I think folks really appreciated the fact that she’d come there at all, committed, came to City Council meetings even if she had some new ideas and was optimistic!
We got to the hotel and the night person on duty was also nice and interested in us. We sat up until late catching up and sharing. I found that this place lent itself to a kind of late-night intimacy and openness I hadn’t felt for many years.
The hotel was overlooking the most beautiful waterfall and stream, where people came to swim because the pool was over 6 feet deep. The stream had been recently stocked with fish and for the first part of the season, fishermen had to abide by the catch and return policy. Later, as the fish bred and grew, they could keep the fish. Fishing is another way people live in West Virginia. The streams are full of trout and folks fish to eat there. It’s a natural part of life, like gardening.
The water rushed and the sound was welcome all night. I got up though because I was so cold somewhere after 2:00. I always get cold at night these days.
Raina’s closest friend in town is the Mayor. He’s also kind of an old hippie, but the difference is, unlike Raina , he’s an insider as well as an outsider. He had grown up in New York in Long Island, but he returned to his family home in Greenwood a number of years back. His family was one of the wealthy ones, one of the ones that helped clear-cut the whole State a few generations ago. Cam spends much of his time at his family farmhouse 5 miles outside of town though because he’s the Mayor, he has to keep a small apartment to be a resident of Greenwood.
Perhaps it’s his guilt for his forefathers that makes him so, but Cam is the foremost Tree-hugger in the area and is famous for his environmental stance and commitment. He actually ran for Governor a few years ago on an environmental platform and was soundly beaten, but he is considering running again, just to be sure the message is heard. Imperturbable until he starts speaking about his personal life, he looks like a young and thin James Taylor. He has enemies in the town but he has supporters also.
We were to go to dinner at his farmhouse that evening, but we spent the day largely at the waterfall right by my hotel. A guy named Guy helped me down to right by the water. It was a bit steep and risky but I trusted him completely. He was so solid. A really good person. Raina , who’s on a thousand town committees was talking to him about some work he could do with the teen-agers. He and a friend of his cast fishing-lines into the water and threw back their fish as we had a picnic Raina had prepared, her little dog dancing circles of ecstasy around us.
That evening we drove up to Mayor Cam Stewart’s farm-house. He led the way up the winding pass, stopping at points to show us the difference between old growth, clear cut and 15-years post clear-cut. He talked about the differing views on degrading forests by selective cut versus the longer time and erosion caused by clear-cutting. As he drove ahead of us, Raina said, “If you see a sadness in his eyes, it’s because he just sold 120 of his 150 acres to the timber companies.”
“What?” I gasped, amazed that this environmentalist would do such a thing.
“He saved 30.” Raina said. “But otherwise, he would have lost it all. Most of the money went to his wife’s medical bills. She has M.S. – then she left him anyway.” Raina’s voice was sad for her friend.
At the farmhouse, we saw that indeed Cam had saved the plum of the land. It was beautiful, with flowers all over and massive pussy-willow trees. Cam told us stories of how his grandparents planted the large evergreens in front of the porch. “They block the sunset.” he said, “But I saw them put them in as seedlings,” I don’t have the heart to cut them down.
The silence was profound up there. Only bears and deer every now and then caused the dogs to bark. And Cam Stewart’s stories. He was a born story-teller and he told wonderful tales from his childhood and history. He was deep in history. He waded in it comfortably, like a swamp-dweller. He had no problem being “of some place”. He loved nothing more than to talk about his roots.
The house was layered like a cultural wedding cake – On the surface was clutter of everyday life. Beneath that were books – everywhere – old Penguin classics, art books, cookbooks, Langston Hughes, Beckett, Emily Post. The books were covered in dust but had all been opened and read sometime. Deeper still in the morass was art. On every wall stood original paintings, portraits, huge landscapes. Good quality. Interesting art. Unafraid. The whole house was that: of the unafraid intellect, of the inquiring reaching seeker. There were also Buddhas, large candles, statues of Krishna and Mary. There was no discrimination in this home based on Deity.
Cam Stewart told me about his life while he made a fire in the woodstove. I felt inspired for the first time in ages to tell someone of mine – just the essentials: a moment in the woods, a glint in a lover’s eyes, a sorrow that cracked me like an ancient vase. Raina cooked in the kitchen, straining to hear. Every now and then, she’d call in, “I never knew that story!”
The three of us were compatible like old schoolmates. We sat in the dining room. Raina had moved things about and made a space at the table, candle-light, flowers. It could have been heavenly – except for huge populations of ladybugs living on the ceiling. Drawn to the light, they would fall even into our food. They crunched under the wheels of my wheelchair. “They have no natural enemies,” said Raina. “This time of year, they just multiply. Every day I take 5 cups of them out to the garden.”
I might have been troubled but these West Virginia heroes ate right on through it, brushing the stray ladybug off a brow, giving it just that much attention but no more than necessary, keeping full focus on the story or complaint or sharing they were making.
Cam Stewart brought out some wonderful looking Rose’ wine. On opening it, the bottle cracked halfway down the neck. A jagged hole was left, but with all the good wine inside. He took a good look at it and decided it was safe. He poured us all wine from the broken bottle. This for me was the metaphor of the town. A broken bottle and the recklessness that said, “I will have my wine!” We drank, the two of them heartily, me with tiny sips!
Cam Stewart’s father was an artist. Many of the paintings in the house were his. He told me his father’s story. Born in West Virginia, when Cam Stewart was young, he and his wife and children moved to Long Island, New York. There his dad amazed the neighbors by turning his little tiny backyard into a fecund garden with peaches, peppers, lettuce, tomatoes. “He gave most of it away,” said Cam Stewart. “And always telling stories…. everyone loved him. But that’s what he knew to do. He said that Long Island should never have been developed. The topsoil was the best he’d ever seen anywhere!
Later, he came back here. Life had turned bitter on him. Before he died, he was a broken man. There was a point that he’d sell a painting for beer money.
Now-a-days, as the Mayor, every now and then, someone just comes up and gives me a painting from that time done by my Dad. It makes everything worth it.”
Later in the evening, we sat and I played guitar. We talked in between songs – about the environment, about local politics, about Greenwood and the dreams Cam Stewart and Raina shared for the place. In the midst of all this harmony, a loud noise outside was heard and glaring headlights from a large truck were seen.
“Who could it be at 11:30 at night?” I wondered. The house was the only one on the mountain. It surely wasn’t someone there by accident. With all the animosity Cam Stewart had from certain townspeople, I wondered if it were someone who wished him harm.
But it was Ron- a friend, a supporter. Handsome, lean, made of the wood in which he worked, he entered, a bottle of Jack Daniels in one hand, a half gallon of coke in the other.
I’ve rarely seen anyone as drunk as this. Ron was wild and unmannered. Yet, he was sweet and completely devoted to the Mayor. He kept apologizing for ruining our evening. We all just accepted the shift from harmonious water-gazing to the knife-slinging of energy and the smell of alcohol which Ron brought. Also, there was the domination of the conversation which comes so often when a person is totally inebriated.
Ron joined us, sitting by Raina on the couch. He wanted to hear music. I handled it for awhile but soon felt the need to leave. It was late. “Can I have a moment with her alone?” asked Ron to Raina and Cam Stewart. They glanced at me for my o.k. I nodded. I wasn’t’ afraid anymore. I had drunk a bit of the wine from the broken bottle. I had thrown a few ladybugs aside. I was still an outsider, surely, but I’d shifted inside since my time driving into the State, afraid to get out of the van.
“I used to be a skin head -” he told me when they left the room. “Not the Nazi kind!” he quickly assured me.
There’s no need to respond much when someone is this drunk. I just opened my mouth to say something and he went on. “I used to be mean, real mean.”
Again, I took a breath to speak but he continued, “I know why!!”
“Yeah?” I managed to get out.
The reek of alcohol wafted into my unhappy nostrils. He gazed at me seriously, “Poverty.”
Somewhere in the still full-moon night, the sky cried silently. A moment in time opened up.
“That’s enough to make you mad.” I said, somewhat ineptly.
“No, not mad,” said the inebriated sage, with confession in his stance, “I just had no conscience.”
I was really interested. “How did you grow a conscience?” I asked.
His voice rose in volume. Looking at me as if he still wasn’t sure he could trust me, he said with some pride, “I chose to get a conscience!”
I found out later that Ron had married early in life and had a child by his wife. She died in a car accident. Later he remarried to his current wife, a Vietnamese refugee and they had a second child – also a son. They recently moved to Greenwood. He’d started a business taking the bark from the timbered trees and using it on high-income homes as a sort of siding. It apparently was beautiful, a totally green income using an item which would have been completely wasted. He was fearless in the woods, would go up and down cliffs and mountains like a bobcat. He loved the extremes. And he loved the Mayor. He believed in what he was doing and said over and over when we were together, “I’m here to protect you!” to Cam Stewart.
Eventually, we all went outside for Raina to sing her full moon song. I’ve sung it with her over the years. We went on the hillock and could see the beautiful “Grandmother Moon”. As she sang and I joined in her chorus, Ron retreated and stepped away. As we finished the song, in perfect synchrony from across the other side of the mountain, I heard the most sincere and un-self-conscious howling at the moon I’ve ever heard before.
As Cam Stewart let us out the gate, he said, “I think I’ll follow you out,” and he followed us in his car, just leaving Ron at his house. Apparently, Ron is always invited there anytime – a place for him to get away from the domestic life or the things that get him down. God knows, he probably was an alcoholic for many years. I’ve never seen anyone to drink Jack Daniels straight that uncomplainingly since John Wayne movies made their impact.
This was my last evening in Greenwood. But as tonight, I couldn’t sleep. The moon was full and the air was so clean I wanted to turn myself inside out in it like a balloon fizzing its life away – to gulp new air as new life. I sat up on my balcony at the hotel as the waterfall determined something for me.
I packed up, not sleeping at all and left with the night still upon me. As I drove home, a great calm settled into and was added to my soul.
I had no idea I was on a yatra, a spiritual expedition or quest when I came. When fear is met, it need not be “conquered”. The important moment is in the balancing of the past with the present. The moment the sky cried and Ron and I balanced eye to eye.
All of the journey became one moment within me. I’d been touched by a West Virginia comet — and the drizzle of its tail had sprinkled itself across my heart like a few stray ladybugs on a full-moon night.