A reflection on working in Appalachia and lessons learned from a dying stranger.
|I was born and raised in southern Arizona, but I have spent the majority of my life in the Appalachian region of Western North Carolina. The mountains are definitely my home now. The desert's beauty is unique and incredible, but nothing takes my breath away like a colorful view of the Smokey Mountains on a pretty Fall morning. It is here that I began my adult life as a wife, mother and social worker.
It's been several years since I stopped working with families in the mental health system. I had been assigned to some of the most impoverished counties in North Carolina. They were impoverished according to demographics, but the residents of these counties didn't necessarily agree with that assigned status. The folks in these Mountains believe that if you own a small piece of land you can farm and a home to live in you are as rich as you need to be. I worked with some of the children in these counties who had come to the attention of the authorities for one reason or the other. I also conducted some qualitative research for a volunteer program at the same time. Both of these jobs put me right in the middle of Appalachian Culture, but I was ignorant to the challenges the assignment would bring with it. I was also ignorant of my own ignorance, which is never a recipe for fast success. It was a baptism by flame, to say the least.
I quickly found out that being the outsider in a very closed community is a cold place to be. Fortunately for me I was not there for friendship at that time. I was there to collect information, but information was the last thing anyone wanted to give a young, cocksure stranger. I needed a new strategy to gain trust and, thereby, gain information. Nothing from my text books seemed to do the job. Being a resource broker by profession helped me to dig a little deeper in my repertoire of skills and experiences. In that moment of impasse I remembered a gift that was given to me by a dying woman just a few years prior. That gift would open the closed doors and would equip me with skills that the most prestigious college could never fully teach. The art of storytelling was my new major. I wasn't going to be the one telling the stories; I would be playing the part of the audience.
I discovered that in order to win the trust of the people I needed to work with, I first needed to slow down and listen more closely. Storytelling is a huge part of the vernacular tradition in Appalachia. It happens spontaneously and is not something that can be scheduled during office hours. For example, one time I stopped along the road and asked for directions to a remote destination from a local farmer who was standing out in his field. I was lost and cell phones were as useless as the letters behind my name in these counties. With each landmark he pointed me to in his directions, there was a story to be told. "Just drive down that road a bit, and when you come to that old barn where the roof is falling in, turn left." The farmer went on to tell me why the barn was in disrepair, and the tragic story of a farming family's battle with the cancer that ended their livelihood. I not only learned about the other family that day, but I learned a lot about the man I stood and listened to. He could see my interest in his story and so he freely shared.
Storytelling to the folks in Appalachia is a lot like giving directions to a specific destination. Their stories are their landmarks. Listening is the only way to get from point A to point B. Without the landmarks you will never find your way to where you are headed, and there are no alternative maps available. Ears tuned for listening and a willing voice to shape the story are the only tools available to navigate the terrain.
I never realized how much their storytelling had stayed with me until recently. I haven't worked in that culture for quite some time now, but the stories they generously shared with me still come to mind when I need a word of advice or wisdom. The beauty of a culture that possesses a storytelling tradition exists in the tid-bits of wisdom that get added as silver-headed folks render memories to the spoken word.
It is a far cry from the post-modern scurry of larger America. It seems that we very rarely stop to hear a particular story behind a morsel of wisdom that someone wants to share with us. We prefer a predigested solution for our problems made available to us in a vending machine for our convenience. We don't have time for stories. We are a culture on the move! We are a culture of progress! Yet, in all of our busyness we have lost something valuable and important.
In a fast paced, gain-oriented world we slowly lose our need for each other, and in doing so, lose our interest in the stories that truly inform us of each other as well. There are people who appear before us on our journey through the days. They show up as uninvited strangers, and then we have to decide if we will take the time to listen to their story or quickly patronize them with a coolly uttered nicety. Storytellers abide patiently. They never force their stories on others, but rather they wait on the side of the road for the opportunity to help a lost stranger who is seeking direction. Some people share a part of themselves through their stories so much so that they become a landmark within our own navigation in matters of life and love. This is a magic that the most clever storytellers love to perform.
I met such a person years before I ever worked in that story enriched culture. I earned a very nice scholarship as an undergraduate student. One aspect of that scholarship was my promise to fulfill several hours of community service work. This fit well with what was expected of me in my declared major. One year I picked the local hospice program in which to work on this requirement. I was assigned to one patient who never had visitors and was living in a nursing home.
She was a very frail, tiny, wisp-of a woman who had been bedridden for years. She technically should not have been on the Hospice list at that time, but her case manager didn't remove her from the roster because she would lose any extra services without the Hospice designation. The little lady (I will call her "Miss. B") was nearly blind and could barely hold her head up. She was elderly, and had lived through a great deal as evidenced by the stress on her face, the quiver in her voice and the the tremor in her bony hands. I hadn't a clue that this tiny woman would make such a huge impression on my life.
Miss. B had a great love for American literature. She was Europe born, but made it a priority to know as much American history as she could after she immigrated here. She asked me to read to her during our visits. I had an Anthology of American Literature from a past class, so I would crack open the pages and read. I remembered grumbling about having to read so much during that class, but Miss. B. was about to teach me why reading historical stories is such a privilege and should never be taken for granted.
With each paragraph I read she would slowly and breathlessly tell me the story of her life. I often had to lean forward and hold my breath so that I could hear her slightly voice. Miss. B. was a WWII concentration camp survivor. She was young when she entered, but she left the camp an orphan and separated from a sibling she would not see again for many years. She never married, and as a result had no children. Her only sibling to survive the War had died many years prior to our meeting. She gasped for breath to tell me her story, and I was gasping for breath to hold back the tears.
Here was this strong survivor living in a frail body, holding these incredible stories inside. She was patiently waiting for someone to come along and ask her for directions from point A to point B. She spent day after day facing her window in her reclined bed, so she could feel the sun on her face. Confined to that institutional bed was a very lonely and very lovely lady who few ever took the time to know. The nursing home was a kinder and softer confinement from the hellish prison that stole her family from her, but it was a prison nonetheless. We met pretty regularly until she became very ill with pneumonia. Since I was not family, I was not notified when she was actively dying. She was alone at the end. She survived the concentration camp, but age and illness ended her life.
I still think about her often. I can still see her frail silhouette in the bed, and I can hear her raspy and wheezing voice quietly humming out the tune of her life. This blessed encounter provided me with a cherished education in the importance of listening, and that giving time to another person is such a small gift compared to what you get in return. I also learned that the noise of the bustle around me could have easily drowned her voice out. Sometimes the most important words spoken are uttered quietly by dying souls.
I would spend time later working with mountain folks and growing into a better equipped professional. These encounters prepared me for so many other life demands outside of work, like marriage and motherhood. I could have whisked into Miss. B's room each day, fluffed her pillow and filled her water glass. After all, my initial intent was to serve her, and she was supposed to benefit from my time. I was able to sit and read stories to her, but listening to her stories being told to me was the unexpected gift. She passed on to me the valuable landmarks that navigated her through many times of heartache, fear, and renewal. Had I not taken the time we both would have been robbed greatly. I know for certain, however, that I would have been the one to lose the most.
While treading the path before you in this life, watch and listen for the storytellers. Fewer advents are more joyous or captivating than rousing to the narrative souls already right before you, who are waiting patiently to be asked for directions. Their paths sometimes intersect with, or parallel our own. Those who eagerly look for storytellers and desire for them to share their heart's homily, need also look at the pictures framed by the pen in their own sympathetic hand.