By Douglas John Imbrogno | march29.2021 | WestVirginiaVille.com
My mother loved the saying, ‘Bloom where you are planted,’ which she once found hand-stitched on a cloth bookmark. She thumb-tacked it to the kitchen bulletin board, her pre-Web version of a tweet. I thought of her when I saw this happy magnolia tree (above) in bloom near my house, on a crisp March 2021 day in West Virginia.
The bookmark’s advice is simple, and a bit daunting: Bloom, grow up, root yourself, flourish, sprout, manifest your life in whatever soil or conditions you find yourself. No complaints. It’s up to you to bloom. No one can do it for you.
At one time or another, I suspect all of us blame the place where we live — our street address, zip code, city, state, maybe even our country — for stunted or unrealized dreams. There’s even a name for it among creatives: “The Myth of Place.”
If only I didn’t live in the country …
If only I didn’t live in the suburbs …
If only I didn’t live in West Virginia …
If only I lived in New York City/L.A./Nashville/Paris ….
Then, things would be better.
“If only I didn’t live in West Virginia …” has been on the mind of many of us in the Winter and Spring of 2021, who identify with the Mountain State’s small but loud-mouthed progressive/leftish/Trumpublicanism-averse crowd. At least, that’s the sense you get if you keep up with the motley crew of fellow travelers who make up what’s been dubbed ‘West Virginia Twitter.’
The desire to bust out of a politically benighted, often colonially run, depressed-in-every-which-way state has a long and storied past. It likely has a robust future. (West Virginia Public Broadcasting even put a name to a contemporary strain of the syndrome with its years-long series, “The Struggle to Stay.“)
Of course, not all struggles to stay in West Virginia are alike. Some folk have no means to exit stage left or right. Younger generations struggle with finding work that pays well enough and has something to do with their passions, while also pondering the dealbreaker of lousy web service (or no connection at all in vast swatches of blackout West Virginia).
‘No connection,’ indeed. If you’re part of the swelling ranks of human beings whose life has been wired from birth, and for whom communicating across the planet with a click feels like a birthright, where’s the exit ramp to Wiredtopia?
Then there is the fact that around 7 of every 10 people in the state’s voting population checkmarked The Former Guy and now Florida Man as ‘Just the Thing for West Virginia!!’ in two tries inside the voting booth. (How’d that work out for you?)
And what of the casual racism that bottlenecked Del. Danielle Walker’s introduction of The Crown Act in the WV Legislature, which would have made it illegal to discriminate against ethnic hair textures and hairstyles in schools and workplaces? The CROWN Act stands for ‘Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair.’ It’s a national effort that spotlights how a seemingly small thing — a person’s hairstyle — can be used as yet one more lever to control Black lives, a centuries-old imperative for too many white lives.
Then there are the opening salvos in what will no doubt be a floodtide of bills in the state’s capitol that affect the daily existence of transgender folk. This free-floating legislative malaise seems to hunt weekly for new targets and other humans to insult, demean, restrict, put in their place, and ostracize.
What did you say the cost of living was in the other Charleston?
My former colleague Erin Beck nailed what it feels like to be a thinking, feeling person in a state with the coded, crass politics represented by HB3300. This bold attempt by a Republican-throttled Legislature seeks to ditch the state’s income tax, which would devastate services and aid to communities and families for years to come.
Erin tweeted recently: ‘1.8 million people live in the state of West Virginia and in a state of fight, flight, or freeze.’
So, where are you right now? Fight? Flight? Freeze? Or maybe some combination syndrome: ‘Fiflyeeze‘?
For a person of, shall we say, Left Bank leanings (which sums up my own political and cultural orientation in a neat Parisian package), the politics and passions of the current Republican supermajoritarians are flight-worthy. As they seek to drive the state’s finances off a cliff and into a dark holler, it’s enough to provoke thoughtful — or just plain weary —people to get the hell out of Dodge.
And Charleston, Huntington, Boone County, Sod, Ceredo, Big Ugly, Looneyville, Joker, Sassafras, Scrabble or [fill in your whacky actual West Virginia place name here].
The numbingly stupid logic of HB3300 is breathtaking in its moral bankruptcy. It might be summed up this way: “Cut It and They Will Come.” The bill would ditch the state income tax at a loss of $1 billion in state revenue. That would obliterate much of the state funding that fuels everything from child and foster care, food banks and domestic violence shelters, to rural hospitals, fire, police, first responders, and much else across West Virginia’s 55 counties.
In response, masses of people in the hundreds of thousands will notice a shining tax-free rainbow over West Virginia and come barging this way. Plus, it turns out there is an Easter Bunny, after all (if we’re to follow this legislative logic to its final conclusion).
The intent of HB3300 recalls for me a famous remark by Grover Norquist, who founded Americans for Tax Reform in 1985 at the urging of Ronald Reagan, godfather of the current Trumpublican party. Norquist declared charmingly in 2001: “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”
So, let’s be clear. The Republican supermajority in West Virginia is trying to maintain its power by pole-axing the state and its people. Another former colleague of mine, Phil Kabler, has been doing a good job of calling a pole-ax a pole-ax.
In these latter days of his career, it appears Phil has no more f*cks to give and is willing to speak truth to eed-jits, (which you should say with a Scots-Irish brogue.) He is part of a recent Greek chorus of lamentation on Twitter over the worst-case-scenario politics misruling the state, underscored by the cruel theater of HB3300 among many other benighted bills.
The longtime Charleston Gazette-Mail statehouse reporter recently noted his second thoughts on retiring in the Mountain State “if West Virginia doesn’t get its act together.” He has his eyes on the state of his birth. That would be the former Red-as-a-rooster commonwealth of Virginia, which — praise God and pass the pinto beans and voter registration cards — is now run by a Democratic governor and a Dem-ruled statehouse, effective 2020.
So, what are West Virginia Republicans actually up to, then? Cue Phil from his March 27, 2021 “Capitol Beat” column:
Capitol observers (from afar) have been in a state of befuddlement this session as the Legislature advances caustic bill after caustic bill — bills that will harm many West Virginians, denigrate state institutions and discourage investment in or relocation to the state. … That’s occurring as bills that would make West Virginia a more welcoming, empathetic state will officially meet their formal demise as time for their consideration this session expires.
Phil’s theorizes that West Virginia lawmakers are trying to forestall what happened in Virginia, when progressive and liberal-sympathetic urban and suburban voters grabbed the steering wheel of the ship of state.
The new Democratic leadership [in Virginia] set out to address sins of the past in the Commonwealth, passing legislation expanding voting, LGBTQ and reproductive rights, along with passage of gun safety laws, decriminalization and now legalization of marijuana, abolishment of the death penalty, criminal justice reform, protections for workers, legislation ordering relocation of Confederate monuments. … In other words, the complete opposite of the s***show we’re experiencing under our [own] Capitol dome.
The mere thought that West Virginia might ever follow the lead of Virginia, Phil writes, “is anathema to current legislative leadership, which is doing everything in its power to assure that never happens.”
That includes doing everything, he says, “to undermine the authority, fiscal health and attractiveness of cities in the state, since cities are where blue voters tend to congregate and if allowed to grow and thrive as in Virginia, would assure the Republican stranglehold on the state eventually would cease, as it did in the Commonwealth.”
So, to sum up Phil’s argument, if I understand it correctly: ‘Kill it and they won’t come.’
Some days, I feel like sticking it out. I take again to the media and social media ramparts with verve, metaphors, videos, and caramel cappuccinos. On May 1, 2021, WestVirginiaVille.com marks its one-year anniversary as an opinionated, multimedia feature magazine. It is a modest (so-far, unpaid) attempt to showcase wonderful people and their work, along with portraits of a still excruciatingly lovely place, whose woods, hollers, hills, and streams are a Balm of Gilead to souls in need.
The people make it worth the fight. At 10:30 p.m., on Thursday, April 8, West Virginia Public Broadcasting will showcase WestVirginiaVille’s award-winning, 20-minute documentary, “100 Days of Badass Women,” showcasing a genuinely badass, world-class art project pulled off by the quite remarkable Sassa Wilkes of Barboursville, WV.
Another documentary, “WHAT’S IN A NAME: A West Virginia Community Confronts a Confederate Legacy,” examined the years-long battle by a coalition of Black activists and leaders and determined white folk. In Summer 2020, they succeeded in having the former Stonewall Jackson Middle School in West Virginia’s capital renamed, stripping off the Confederate general’s name and ending yet one more vestige of America’s deeply institutional racism. The tears of joy seen at documentary’s end, shed by an educator key to the effort, Dr. Gregg Suzanne Ferguson, are a powerful coda to what remains possible when the state gets out of the way and the people lead with heart and soul.
Other weeks, I feel like flight. I possess my father’s birth certificate from his 1928 entry into the world in the Calabrian hills of Italy. Which means — molto grazie! — I’m eligible for dual citizenship in Italia. To be sure, Italian governance is no great shakes, either. (They’ve had 66 since World War II, an average of one every 1.14 years.) But they also have Venice. And olives to die for.
Not a few days of every month in West Virginia, I freeze.
I’m immobilized by, for instance, the gobsmacking vacuity of Mrs. Shelley Moore Capito’s tenure as one of two powerful West Virginia senators. She has been missing in action for every single great issue of the day these past four, awful years. I vowed a while back to never again grant her the honorific of ‘senator‘ when referring to her since she never, ever acts like one. I also coined a slogan as part of a Capito takedown video series, which I offer to her opponents, gratis: “Nothing. It’s what Shelley Moore Capito does.“
Then, I see the continued red tide in how West Virginia votes. I tote up my insignificant couple of hundred views on Mrs. Moore Capito videos. I see the boy legislators in the WV House throw the equivalent of an outlaw frat kegger under the Capitol dome, pawing through the W.Va. Code, crying: “Hey, y’all, watch this….!”
On social media, I see so many friends and people I respect who wanted to be change agents in West Virginia. They tried hard and then harder. And, then, they gave up the ghost and headed for the exits.
Part of the reason I stay has been staring you in the face. In Springtime, West Virginia is drop-dead gorgeous. She’s not bad looking in Fall, either. Summer and Winter have their own separate charms. And from my driveway right now, I can drive north, south, east and west and in 15 minutes be in the midst of an aromatic pine stand. Or a deep and peaceful ravine. Or a marshland full of screeing hawks, slapping beavers, barking geese and blessedly few, if any, outraged humans.
I’ve also mapped out tree-enfolded shelters in well-kept parks where I can light up a cigar with a retired minister buddy and chat about Constantine, Shakespeare (my friend’s directing “The Tempest” in Belle WV this June) and the latest thing Mrs. Moore Capito didn’t do.
I’m also hanging around to watch — and be a part of — the effort to root a new, progressive, truth-telling and accountability media ecosystem in West Virginia and Appalachia. See: Mountain State Spotlight; Crystal Good’s Black By God, The West Virginian; the Kyle Vass newsletter Dragline; and the continued elaboration of “100 Days in Appalachia,” among others.
I also deeply resent the fact people as haphazard and malignant with their power such as Capito, the boy legislators under the Capitol Dome, and the state’s leprechaun-gone-bad Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, get to define what West Virginia stands for.
Plus, my house is almost paid off after decades. And I have two cats in the yard, who are part of a family I cherish. And there are a bunch of fellow travelers, lodged like hobbits in welcoming hobbit holes around The Shire of the Mountain State, whom I adore.
I also wish to live long enough to see West Virginia re-awaken to the state’s Mother Jones roots, when it thrilled to her command to pray for our dead and “fight like hell for the living.”
It’s touch-and-go, this Mountain State fight-flight-freeze syndrome.
So, a heads up. If you begin seeing photographs of gondoliers, olive trees, Roman coliseums, and coffee-porn shots of rich, creamy-brown espresso in teensy white ceramic cups, you’ll know I packed it in. The tell will be if you visit this website and it has been re-christened ‘PastaPrimaveraVille.’
If it’s still called ‘WestVirginiaVille,’ you’ll know I’m just out for a breather.
EDITORIAL: An Open Letter to Shelley Moore Capito: feb12.2021: Which will it be. Either: Shelley Moore Capito stood for a president willing to launch a vicious attack mob at the heart of the U.S. Capitol. Or: Shelley Moore Capito did the right thing in the final pinch and voted to impeach such a man.
THE FEMALE GAZE: How a West Virginia Artist Captured 100 Badass Women: feb3.2021: Overwhelmed by the headlines, by Donald Trump, a pandemic and winter coming, West Virginia artist Sassa Wilkes couldn’t get herself to her easel. Then, RBG died and Sassa found she wished to get to know the legal legend by painting her portrait. She kept on going with 99 more portraits of badass women.
EDITORIAL | A Shelley Moore Capito Reader: oct29.2020: We present for your reading and viewing interest a selection of three items pertinent to the candidacy and further office-holding of the Republican senator from West Virginia, Shelley Moore Capito.
EDITORIAL: “The Silent Senator Capito,” A Justice Project Video: oct182020. Waiting on WV Senator Shelley Moore Capito to do the right thing—not just mouth the right thing—you might notice your hair turn another color and not from hair dye. So, WestVirginiaVille points its second Justice Project editorial video her way.
MINI-DOC | “What’s In a Name?” The Deeper Story Behind a WV Confederate Legacy: oct8.2020: The removal of a Confederate general’s name from the former Stonewall Jackson Middle School in West Virginia’s capital city this Summer was more than just a cosmetic change. In 2020, America confronted the wounds that have haunted the country’s existence. The renaming of the school laid bare that history.
POINTS of VIEW | ‘If You’re Silent About Your Pain’: july3.2020: A LETTER TO NEUTRAL COLLEAGUES: “I realize you may be actually confused about whether blacks are offended or feel pain from reminders of that dark period. Zora Neale Neale Hurston once said: “If you’re silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” So, I will clarify that we are offended. We are in pain.”
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