Thinking of returning to live once again in a rural area of West Virginia where I grew up, tugs at my heart repeatedly, as if to remind me of a possibility that never leaves — has not left me since I considered it a number of years ago. The reason for my indecision is not clear to me. Perhaps that’s part of the problem.
Certainly the people I know in the area — have known for many years — play a vital role in my consideration to return, but in the end it is not so much about them as it is about how I might find a way to bring something of value to the table. Because unless I can identify that crucial element, I would only be in the way; and if you know anything about rural Americans, you know there’s little appetite for that. They would wish me well and then get on with the important work to be done, and there is plenty: health care, education, jobs, housing, infrastructure, addiction treatment, the list goes on.
Part of the calculus I am doing revolves around the housing piece, in particular. Affordable, yes, until you factor in the costs of renovations: plumbing, electrical, and structural. The beauty of the area remains untarnished, but the ever-growing number of folks leaving for a more equitable employment landscapes and better health care and a stronger educational system are often not in a financial position to make these necessary repairs to their property. If they could, they might not be leaving in the first place. It’s a catch-22 for certain, and a heart-wrenching one as well.
The lack of certain access to high-speed internet service also gives me pause. It’s not an impossible situation to live with, but its challenges are pervasive and prevent so many who want to return to their rural roots from actually returning. It’s this ever-present struggle between the heart and the head. And even when progress is made, the burdens that rural Americans face remain weighty.
The town was once vibrant, with banks and restaurants, retail establishments, pharmacies, florists, a movie theater and a bowling alley, a hospital staffed with excellent physicians, and lawyers and dentists and impressive business owners. That was one side of the railroad tracks. On the other sat a well-respected college whose programs were nationally recognized and whose faculty held acknowledgments of excellence. It’s where I earned two undergraduate degrees and one graduate degree. The pride there was almost tangible. And then the coal industry began to crumble, taking the town with it.
The house I’m considering is crumbling too, and yet my vision for its rebirth is clear. The flaking stucco exterior, the damp basement, the patch of yard overgrown with thick brush, an interior that needs to be taken down to the studs, and electrical and plumbing issues that are in clear view tell me to run, but I don’t. Instead, I fall in love with the terracotta tile surround at the wood-burning fireplace, flanked by glass-fronted built-in bookcases. I walk out onto the front porch and admire the beadboard overhead. Later, after I’ve left the property, I stop at the Dairy Queen for a sundae, already writing the list of pros and cons on my drive back to the city, knowing (because I’ve taken this ride many times) that the weight of the cons is overwhelming. And that’s when I cry for both sorrows and joys.
When I return home, I retrieve from my bookcase a work that reminds me time and again why I need to take a deep breath and jump into the far end of the pool, knowing that passion for a place that struggles against all odds for a rebirth just might be enough for me to take the leap. And as I turn to read each page from Cynthia Rylant’s “Appalachia: The Voice of Sleeping Birds,” knowing the clock is always ticking, I am reminded of why those hills keep beckoning: a reverence for the natural world, a certain endurance in the face of adversity, a dedication to family and an unquenchable belief in a Being greater than ourselves, a reveling in the ups and downs of seasonal challenges, a people continuing to live with “no sourness about them.” That’s when one question rises to the top: “What are you waiting for?”
Kathleen M. Jacobs lives in West Virginia and writes books for young readers. She holds an M. A. in Humanistic Studies. She can be reached at www.kathleenmjacobs.com.