Expecting to leave

Earlier this week, WV Public Radio show Inside Appalachia posed a question on Twitter: did Appalachian ex-patriates regret leaving? Were they homesick? How did they alleviate that?

My answer is probably obvious — I named my blog The Homesick Appalachian, after all. I left, and I have regrets and homesickness. Those regrets have grown up only in the past few years, and I’ve been thinking a lot about them.

The question sat in my mind for a couple of days, and I started pondering why I left. After all, now I do have regrets, although I didn’t for a long time. What had been going on in my 17-year-old mind? What was I thinking then that’s different now?

While there were several reasons why I left, one stands out as something I think is worthy of a larger discussion.

I think I left in part because I was expected to.

It wasn’t spoken, that I recall, but I feel like there was always an understanding there — that if you could leave, you probably would. If you could get into a prestigious college, or get a good job somewhere else, you should go. If you left, you probably wouldn’t be back to stay.

It’s hard now to pinpoint the source of that expectation. Was it just my mother, who most definitely did expect me to go to the best school that A)I could get into and B) we could afford? I don’t think it was just Mom. I think, peering back through the fog of the years, that that expectation was coming from other adults, the teachers and the parents of my friends.

I’d be interested in hearing if other Appalachians felt that unspoken expectation when they were young. I also wonder if my former classmates — particularly the nerdy, college-track crowd — remember that understanding the same way. Of course, a lot of my classmates still live in or near our hometown. Clearly not everyone felt this expectation to leave. But Facebook and the couple of reunions we’ve had tells me that a fair number of other classmates live elsewhere now.

While I feel that there was the expectation from the grownups that we should go, it wasn’t about Bluefield being a bad place. It was a good place, a safe place, the schools were good. It’s still a good place, especially to raise a family. It wasn’t necessarily a great place to look for a career, or for adventure.

Because of course, when you’re 17 or 18, raised in a small town, you want out. You want adventure, you want to explore something bigger. I do think leaving, for a while, is a good idea for anyone — living somewhere you didn’t grow up is an educational experience, whether you grew up in Appalachia or New York City.

I bring all this up because I wonder what expectations kids in Appalachia are feeling today. Do they think they’re expected to leave? Are they urged out of the nest and out of the mountains? What kind of messages are they hearing?

The other weekend, there was a conference, or festival, or something in between, called It’s Good 2 Be Young in the Mountains. I am neither particularly young anymore, nor in the mountains, and I wasn’t there, but I did hear about it. I don’t even need, really, to read their schedule — the mere title of the conference says to me that kids in Appalachia might be hearing more reinforcement to stay than I heard when I was their age.

I don’t remember anyone, 15 or 20 years ago, talking about finding ways to stay, finding ways to build a full life there at home. Perhaps I wouldn’t have listened if they did. But I don’t feel like we ever heard an overt message to stay when I was 18. Not from our teachers, or local governments. It seems like we’re hearing more of those positive messages in the past couple of years, and that’s a good thing.

Last month I heard a story on NPR about an ad campaign in Montana, urging its grown kids to come back home. Turns out it’s a businessman urging Montana’s grown natives to come back and telecommute to the jobs they already have.

It’s an intriguing idea for Appalachia, where it can be hard to attract new businesses. There’s a lot of talk about Appalachian revitalization and ways to build a post-coal economy. Wouldn’t it be great if we could live in Appalachia and work remotely for companies anywhere in the world? It would save trying to lure them to the mountains.

People leave their hometowns for all kinds of reasons, of course, not always for an education or a job. It can be hard to be different in Appalachia, as it probably is in any small town or rural area. It can be hard to find your tribe. Some people want the benefits of city living, or warmer weather, or nearby beaches. Some people think the place they’re from is backwards and dying, and they want forwards and living.

I went off to college, moved back home afterward because I hadn’t found a job elsewhere, and stayed a couple of years, working. But at 23 I still didn’t think home was big enough. I thought I had to go after bigger things and more adventures. And so I left again. I did not have a particular plan or destination in mind, I did not really leave Appalachia on purpose. I just chased a job. And then another job, further away, advancing my career.

But when you stay gone,  you put down roots without even planning it. I left for jobs and adventures, but I did not think about where I wanted to build a life. I thought I would get to that, after the adventures, and maybe that’s where I am now, thinking about where I want to build a life, even though I’ve spent rather a long time building one where I live now.

I try not to second-guess my younger self. I didn’t regret leaving until recently, and I had a good career that I thought was what I was meant to do, for a long time. The things I want now are not the things I wanted then.

It’s self-indulgent to give unsolicited advice, but no one can ever help doing it, and I can’t either. If a young person in Appalachia today asked me if he or she should leave, I would say this: Think really hard about where you want to build your life. Be deliberate about where you grow roots. Go explore, but it’s ok to stay, and it’s ok to come home.

 

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6 Responses to Expecting to leave

  1. Jonathan Grove says:

    Just wanted to say I really appreciate the blog and feel just the way you describe at the end… I spent my early adulthood chasing a career, to “be somebody” – a Travis Tritt song that made me cry every time it played on the radio – and now As I raise my two small children thousands of miles away, and deal with my growing homesickness, I can’t help but wonder if this is the place I want them to grow up. There are things I don’t want for them there… But there are gifts I treasure besides family too…

    Thanks for wading through this with your readers!

  2. Doug Bonner says:

    Thank you for your blog. I listened to the podcast of Inside Appalachia’s Do We Talk Funny? “Ap-pal-atch-un” vs “Ap-pal-ay-shun” which is where I learned of your blog. I also listned to Appalachia Will Always Be Home For Many Who’ve Left.

    I found both podcasts extremely interesting as I am from West Virginia myself, Buckhannon to be exact. I was actually surprised to learn that I’m not the only one that feels this way, being homesick, that is.

    I left WV when I was 22 years old to join the Air Force. I vividly remember the day I left for Basic Training. I remember thinking that it won’t be the same when I return. Even though, to me, it will always be home, it was no longer my home as I knew it. During my time in the military, I knew I’d be coming back to visit and even in my parents home, I would be a visitor.

    After a two year tour in England, I remember coming home on leave and feeling like a stranger in my hometown and how…odd…that seemed to me. I enjoyed my time in the military and all the traveling that was afforded to me, but I always missed home and thought that when my time in the military was up, I’d move back. Everytime I came home for a visit, I had such an aching and longing for the mountains being somewhere that meant so much to me. I’ve lived in England, Texas, and now Ohio, but I’ve always been a West Virginian. Always proud of where I’m from.

    I’ve been retired from the Air Force now 5 years after serving 22 years. So, its been 27 years since I’ve been an official resident of West Virginia, but it’s still home, it’s still a part of me. It always will be. After I retired, I decided to stay in Ohio so I could take full advantage of my retirement benefits and be close to my daughter. But I miss it everyday.

    I don’t regret leaving and joining the military. That decision helped make me the man I am today. I have been back for several reunions and I encouter classmates that have never left and a part of me feels as though they haven’t broadened their horizons in the same way I have. And, honestly, a part of me feels sorry for them and yet at the same time, envious of what seems to me an innocence that I no longer have.

    So, I agree whole heartedly with your article. Thank you for sharing.

    • CD says:

      Inside Appalachia is always a good listen! I guess since new experiences change us, home can never be the same as it was before we left, since we are no longer the same. Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment.

  3. Judy Byrd says:

    You had me with the photograph. I didn’t grow up in TN, but did spend time every winter and summer entire childhood, and looked every day at a barn like those. (I was told I brought the accent back with me every visit.)

    My heart lies in Middle Tennessee. Wish I was there.

  4. wc says:

    Oh dear, I never thought I could find someone as homesick as I am, and with so many of the same issues.

    I recently wrote a paper comparing and contrasting James Still’s poem, White Highways, with Neal Bowers, For the South. I titled it, “Appalachian Homecoming”. I love James Still, I was so delighted when I found him–I found myself weeping. Like, someone put words to my homesickness.

    I too have been reflecting on why I left. I should clarify that I am from Richmond Va area but my heart was always in the mountains. My grandparents used to take me for drives on the Blue Ridge and we had family near the mountains. I lived in Charlottesville Va and used to commute on The Blue Ridge almost every day.

    I think I left for more than one reason. Mostly, adventure. I was a total hippie born in the wrong decade. So, I took off to California when I was 20, following The Grateful Dead. I’m 43 now. The adventure suited me well when I was younger, now I’m ready to go home. The other reason I left was because I wasn’t exposed to enough of the world to appreciate that what I had was pretty amazing. I had to leave in order to understand that.

    I also read your post about the word, ‘hillbilly’. Personally, I rather like the word BUT I never knew that it was a, ‘bad’ word. I guess, even growing up in rural Virginia, I always saw it as a good word. I don’t know how I would feel if I had your experiences. I think it is a perfect word because, as you pointed out so beautifully, it uses the word, “hill” and connects a person’s name with a place. It’s as if it says one is connected with the place. I believe it is true in Appalachia. There is a deep connection between the people and the earth. I think this is beautiful.

    I’m trying to move to Appalachia too and the job issue is the elephant in the room. My husband is planning on working online. I plan on having to start a small business. It’s funny, my oldest child is about the age I was when I left. I’ve dragged my kids there every chance I get, it’s our only vacation destination since every moment I can I want to be there. Anyway, my youngest loves it–my oldest doesn’t get it yet. He’s at that age of exploration, the same as I was. So, maybe it’s a right of passage.

    I do love the idea of kids returning and re-uniting family’s. I think it will help keep the beautiful culture alive if family’s are closer together, but I also think it’s good for the kids to get out and see the world–if for no other reason than to appreciate the miracle of a place they come from.

    Anyway, I don’t usually post things online but I stumbled across your blog tonight and I just had to say thank you. It’s nice to know I’m not alone in my journey home. I hope you and I both get back before dark.

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