The truth of another’s life, the blow, the impact.
I come from a town where neighbors don’t speak to each other. If someone smiles at you when you’re walking down the street, you look away. I don’t know the names of some of my best friend’s siblings. This is how we live.
Clay County, West Virginia, breaks this unspoken Northern seclusion. A kind of easy-going intimacy feels baked into the asphalt.
At my arrival, I joined staffers as they welcomed their first group of volunteers. We made nametags for them, shook countless hands, and repeated our introductions until it felt like scripture. However, as the days fan out, I count on two hands the number of volunteers that come up to me, address me by name, and ask me questions about myself. Genuine probing questions. A vested interest in understanding each other colored every conversation.
The time I spent with homeowners only deepened this feeling of connection.
Shelia welcomed me into her home and motioned for me to sit between her and her father on their couch. Every inch of her walls was covered with family photos. She saw me looking at them, and almost immediately began walking me through her family tree. Her fingers were tracing braches in the air: three kids, eight grandchildren, and “too many” nieces and nephews. I learned where they all went to college, where they’re at in life, their hopes, and their ambitions. Jane is a pistol. Nathan is too smart for his own good. The whole time she’s asking me questions about my own family too. So we’re swapping stories and laughing, and our talk had the air of a family reunion. The fact that we met under an hour ago felt irrelevant as we unfurled our lives to each other.
Down the road, Stan showed me photos of his time playing in bands. Saccharine memories were in every polaroid. In one, he’s sitting at a resturant with friends. It’s the kind of picture where everyone looks young and impossible. In another, he’s on stage playing guitar. His hair is long and draped over the strings. Sweat pools under his shirt. Out of focus fists pumped in the air frame the bottom, and you can almost hear all the noise. Though arthritis stopped his playing a decade ago, I can see his fingers making chord shapes on the spine of the photo album. He’s nodding his head to an inaudible beat. I felt privy to a private moment. But there was no awkwardness, no thought that I shouldn’t be there. Because when he turns to me, smiles, and rubs a tear from his eye, I get it. This is how he wanted to show himself. This is how I understand.
At the center, there’s been a lot of talk about “ASP Time”. Each day there is so much to do and so much new sensory information that time slows to a crawl. But the beautiful effect is that relationships are fast-tracked. The staff here queued me in on inside jokes and handshakes. We ate every meal together. We sat and pawed over daily personal revelations. We danced wildly to pop music during morning wake-up. I was only in Clay for two days, but I mean to tell you that the friendships I made feel real and tangible.
When I left, they hugged me goodbye.
On the way from Clay to Nicholas County, I decided to take a detour. I drove out past the streetlights, past innumerable homes lining the road, past the crows picking at trash, past deer ducking under guardrails, past turtles inching across the street, their heads bobbing in unison, past the oak trees, sycamore, pine, dogwood, marigold, mistflower, kudzu, and bloodroot, up to the highest place I could find.
Here, miles of undulating hills roll out before me. The sunset is throwing out colors that would make Monet shiver.
Here, with the past week spinning in my head, I settle on a truth that feels easy: there is so much that runs between us.
Story Gathering Intern