Once upon a time, I was lucky enough to be invited on a free trip to Paris. I encountered the usual teasing beforehand—“Say you’re Canadian”—and after I came home—“Was everyone really rude?” I always responded that I encountered no more rudeness in a week in France than I did in a week in the United States. In fact, standing at the base of the Eiffel Tower, looking up into its glittering lights, was such a soul-stirring experience that it fills me with profound sadness that those feelings won’t survive me when I die, floating through the air to land in the hearts of others and fill them with wonder and joy.
Where I grew up: a different story.
I fled Fairmont, West Virginia the moment I was able. In the decade plus since my parents divorced, I’ve probably been back three times, including for a friend’s father’s funeral, and once, prepared to testify in my mother’s restraining order hearing against my dad. In my mind it is a place of pain and fear, of colorless inertia and mediocrity coated with dust. The place where I was ostracized for being the smart kid, and the setting of my emotionally abusive upbringing.
But now I am in my late thirties, and I am starting to suspect that this dominant narrative I’ve carried with me about my childhood and my hometown might not be the whole story. I wonder if I’m the only one?
Something tells me I am not.
In the summer of 2016, West Virginia was hit with terrible flooding in which dozens of people died. I had recently moved again, so I was wide-open for sweeping life changes and new thoughts. I watched the suffering of humble people on television, many of whom, as a friend pointed out, lived in centuries-old homesteads and had never carried insurance. I tried to think in a new way. Absent my home life, had I really encountered more unkindness in two decades in West Virginia than in the two decades everywhere else I’d lived? It took a few deep breaths to be able to say…no.
This wasn’t the first time I’d had thoughts of this nature. I had been through years of therapy that enabled huge strides toward helping me “unfreeze.” And this is one of the great tragedies of trauma, large or small: it can and usually does stay with us forever, coming back just when we’ve forgotten it; protecting our psyches from danger, but unintentionally cutting us off from so much of the beauty that can help us heal.
I have friends and classmates who have stayed. Some may fit my mental picture of having, or assuming they have, no other options. But some have become lawyers and journalists, people with mobility, and for so long I have wondered, “Why?” Why would they stay, when other places seem to offer so much more?
And so I have begun anew to mine the place in my mind where the hurt is lodged for what is good about the place, and to embrace the fear and discomfort that come with doing that. There is the natural beauty. The lack of pretentiousness among its people. The work ethic. The stubborn insistence on survival, and the struggle to grow and evolve: so many of the qualities I admire and hold most dear. Indeed I have pitied some of the friends I have made since I left there, who are burdened with a sense of entitlement, who wring their hands and cannot feel satisfied without things—the big house in the perfect neighborhood, the luxury car. They suffer so needlessly.
Appreciation for the earth, humility, passion for the needs and causes of the poor and disadvantaged—did I learn all of this in the suburbs of Washington, DC? Is Fairmont, West Virginia the only place where straight-A students take some teasing, where kids have troubled relationships with their parents? A few deep breaths…
No. Simply, no.
It may take the rest of my life, in phases and moons, to tend with compassion to the wound. For years now, I have been pushing away, disdaining, even hating a whole town, an entire state, because they have become synonymous in my mind with the sadness, the denigration, the ugliness. With being yelled at and manipulated. I have made the actions of my father as grand as the mountains.
They are not.
All of this is natural and okay. This suit of armor is how I’ve kept myself safe. Over the last couple of years, I have dipped my toes into the waters of meditation and Buddhist psychology, and one of the many things I have learned is to try not to “second arrow” myself—have a set of painful feelings (the first arrow) and then lay self-judgment on top (the second). It’s all right that it’s taking a long time to decompress, to untangle reality from the self-protective bubble I’ve lived in for so long. I want to greet the whole process with compassion.
And I want my home back. The state of West Virginia does not belong to the pain, or to my father. It is a place where trees blanket hills like ripples in water, where people lower themselves into the chasms of the earth to provide for their families, never certain if the industry that employs them will keep them from harm. A place that needs kindness and attention, understanding and love.
Just like me. We deserve—this place and I—not to be separated any longer. At least in our hearts. And so does everyone else, with whatever small town lives in anesthetized prison inside you. Whether it’s a divorce, a lost loved one, or a place you’ve left behind, we all have one.
I’ve moved away now, and I intend to stay where I am. It’s the right place for me. And just as we can forgive a person and decide never to see them again, we can appreciate a place and never go back. Or not. Life is about what’s right for us here and now, whatever serves presence and healing. Usually, part of that is finding a way to let go inside, so that we don’t carry the weight of the past on our backs ceaselessly into the sacred present. I wish that for everyone. I wish that we all may stand at the base of the Eiffel Tower, with the hills of West Virginia in our hearts.
Photo by Ryan McGuire