Why I choose to stay here in West Virginia: Column
So the census report just came out and it was ... not good. West Virginia is No. 1 in population loss, and that’s caused us to lose a congressional seat. Although depending on how you feel about our federal representatives, you might be thinking that’s actually a good thing.
It's not like this is real news to us. We’ve known a long time that people are leaving West Virginia en masse. But the effect of it often feels gradual: a college kid here, a family there ... until you actually see in graph form how bad the Appalachian Exodus has been, and then you realize that we have a serious problem.
We keep asking the same question: Why do people leave? Why can’t we keep our population here? What do the other states have that we don’t? And the answers are as varied as our feelings on hot dog toppings: better jobs, better housing, more things to do, more places to eat, better internet, good roads ... You can keep that list going infinitely. But you know what question rarely gets asked: If it’s so bad here, why do people stay?
I read that some people stay because they can’t afford to leave yet; they’re just waiting for their proverbial ship to come in and then they’ll be gone. Some people seem to resent being here, but would rather complain about living here than make the effort to leave. And some people stay because they really think everything is fine, no changes needed. I’ve never actually met any of these last kinds of people, but they’re probably the same citizens who never pull the plastic cover off their sofa, just let it yellow and rip, and consider that “just fine,” because that’s still better than anyone’s butt ever touching the good sofa fabric.
I can’t speak for why other people stay; I can only tell you why I, a person that falls into the group of people that keeps leaving, stay. Because yes, I could be somewhere else, but any one of us could. Any one of us could decide to leave at any time. The ability to leave one place for another is a right we all have, and a choice we can all make. Some people think it's brave to leave the place you grew up in; it's certainly not an easy decision to make. But I’m not scared to leave, so fear isn’t what keeps me here.
And West Virginia hasn’t oppressed me to the point that being here makes me feel like I can never be myself. That’s a real thing, whether some of y’all want to believe it or not. There are people here who do not feel comfortable being here. I know some of you are reading that last sentence and thinking there’s some sort of blue/red political commentary, but in truth, there’s not a West Virginian in the world who hasn’t felt at some point like who they are is a subject for ridicule and scorn from all the non-West Virginians. Because no matter what side of the political aisle you fall on, outside of our borders, all people need to hear is that you’re from West Virginia, and you are subjected to a sneer.
Make no mistake about it, my fellow Mountaineers: We can tell ourselves that we are a part of the bigger teams out there all we want, but the truth is, West Virginia has been its own club since 1863. We know when disaster hits, we have to be prepared to deal with it ourselves because no one is coming voluntarily to rescue us. That burden of caring for this state is a hard one — there’s never enough money, never enough jobs, and now there’s not enough people. And I know people that stay because they take the responsibility of keeping their state, their county, their town, going, seriously. As hard as it is, as exhausting, as thankless as it can be, they do it because they feel responsible for keeping this place functioning for everyone in it, and they wish they had the resources to do better. I certainly envision all the good things I’ll do with my Mega Millions money if I ever hit The Big One.
But a sense of responsibility for my state isn’t entirely why I stay either. See, some people wander around looking for the place that feels like home their whole lives. They journey through life looking for that one place that makes them want to put down roots, that place that makes them feel like their life can truly “begin.” Not me. Me, I was born in the place that makes me feel at home, and I have lived there all my life, and I’ve never wanted to leave it. Because no other place I’ve ever been lifts my soul like my holler and the home in it.
Some people reading this won’t understand that, because they grew up in hollers like mine and they’re fine with never coming back unless there’s a funeral involved. Some people reading this will think that I’ve just not seen enough of the world to know what’s out there for me, that I’ve limited myself from the start. Some people have all kinds of ways to rationalize why they think I, a person who doesn’t have to stay, stays.
All I can tell them is the peace I feel at my home, in that A-frame house my parents and family built by hand 40 years ago (then had Bob Williams and his team of professionals fix properly years later), in the holler my grandparents settled in almost 60 years ago, is where my spirit is happiest. I never turn off of Route 21 and wish I could be going somewhere else, even when I know I’m driving to a house where there’s a 50/50 shot internet won’t be working. It’s a pot-holed and sketchy low-water-bridge-filled drive, but I love it. I love the sun as it sets over the hills, love the colors of the sky with the trees in silhouette. I love listening to the creek bubble and burble as the water runs over the rocks, and love seeing the blue heron that visits my pond. I love the way the tension in me leaves when I pull up to that log cabin house, where birds constantly fly in through the chimney and heat leaks through the picture windows and Virginia creeper has planted itself in my gutters. It’s a home that needs serious updating, but I love it, because I love the way I feel when I’m there.
The same way I love my holler and home in West Virginia is the same way I love my state: to the marrow of my bones, even knowing it needs fixed, even knowing it needs updated. For me, the negatives don’t lessen the joy seeing those “Wild & Wonderful” signs at the state line gives me. Because a place can need fixing, and you can still love it, deeply. For some people, the effort of fixing something broken isn’t worth their time, and I don’t fault them for feeling that way. We are here on this earth for a short while, and that short while should be spent being in a place that makes you happy, not a place you feel like you are constantly fighting.
But see, that’s why I stay: because a thing can be broken, but if you love it enough, you’ll put the effort into fixing it. You’ll clean the gutters and wash the windows and you’ll put out some new porch furniture so people have a place to sit when they stop by in the evening. You’ll do the things you need to do so the place you call home can stay your home as long as possible, and if you do it right, maybe other people start thinking that they can find that peace in a hollow of their own.
Because that’s really what everyone wants in a place to live: peace. Peace that comes from feeling secure, peace that comes from feeling valued, peace that comes from knowing you and the people you love are cared for. And I truly believe West Virginia can give that to anyone looking for it, because I believe so many of us Mountaineers want that for them.
We just have to do some fixing up first.