Settling in: a saga

Three and a half weeks in and I would say I’m finally settled. The transition back into student life from adulting-working life has been a riot so far – everything from going back to shared living spaces to trying not to be so annoyed by the undergrads in the library – but it is a change that is beginning to feel ‘right’.

Here orientation week is called ‘fresher’s week’ and what a week it’s been. From meeting my incredible cohort of people I’ll be studying alongside for two years to enjoying the traditions of formal hall and other college events, it’s been a whirlwind of new faces, new friendships, and unforgettable (or some rather hazy, but lovely) moments.

Today I’m trying to take a step back from the rat race that’s been fresher’s week to really appreciate what a beautiful and profound opportunity this is on so many levels. I mean, I get to study here in places like this one:

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The Radcliffe Camera – University of Oxford

Here at Regent’s Park College – my college and the social hub of my University experience – has a motto that I feel is expressly applicable for this time:  Omnia probate quod bonum tenete. In English this means “Test all things; hold on to what is true.” I intend to test it all. 

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Getting back in the swing.

It’s hard to believe that this time last week and I was finishing up packing to move my life halfway across the globe to pursue a dream. Stuffing last minute times into carry-ons, hoping that my luggage scale is right and my bag is underweight (it wasn’t), and going through the mental checklist of everything I have to accomplish to get to and through Heathrow with the least possible stress.

And now, here I am.

Oxford welcomes you back like an old friend it would seem. Industry bustles on and there’s always development or construction somewhere, but the key pieces will always be the same as they’ve been for centuries. the Martyr’s Memorial. The Radcliffe Camera. The spires of University Church. The obnoxious, homogenous crowds of tourists that seem to forget sidewalks are for walking.

I missed the hell out of it.

At least I did until the panic set in. Can you imagine a move where you literally arrive and don’t even have a towel to shower off the over 24 hours of travel sweat you’ve accumulated off your body? Not even a sheet to lay down on? Trudging through the busy streets to a department store to buy towels and bedding was the last thing I wanted to do when I arrived in a literal downpour to the City of Dreaming Spires, but I didn’t have much choice. (Though if I had a pillow to stick my head under when I first arrived, I probably would have done so.)

On top of all this, receiving missive after missive from my program, confronting the literal mountain of pre-reading I should have accomplished a month ago, all while figuring out the basics of my new life, finding a phone, getting a bank account, finding where to buy a damn pan, etc etc….

It’s overwhelming. But not unmanageable.

While taking on this degree and returning to Oxford feels a lot like coming home, this time it is different. I am older, (arguable wiser), and moving much more in a direction purposefully rather than moving with the inertia of what a moderately intelligent girl from Kentucky should do. And after a two year sabbatical from academic work, I’m chomping at the bit to get down to business.

Fragmented as my thoughts are right now, I guess you could say I’m getting back in the swing of things.

Fighting Stereotypes: The “Hillbilly” Narrative

There have been many things to surprise me over the past couple of years, not least of which is the rise in conversation about the ‘hillbilly’. Due in part to J.D. Vance with his poorly written, stereotype-enforcing book “Hillbilly Elegy” and the rise in discussion about Appalachia and its role in the 2016 election, ‘hillbilly’ has become a buzzword.

But what’s in a ‘hillbilly’?

But what’s in a ‘hillbilly’? What’s behind this traditionally derogative phrase?

This blog is called The Oxford Hillbilly for several reasons, chief among them my claim on the identity. I’m from rural Kentucky and my familial roots are deep in the Appalachian hills of this state – since before it even was a state and was still part of the Virginia wilderness. In essence, we’ve been ‘hillbillies’ for a real long time. Yet I’ve found criticism and ridicule for my identity rampant – perhaps showing up most in the silly response I’ve had by some to the title for this blog with comments like “You’re not even a hillbilly?” or “Well, shouldn’t you be ashamed of that?”

Well, there is a lot to unpack there.

…my identity is also just as tied to the very hills I’ve been raised on and the culture of the hills my people came from as the books I read and the ideas I discuss.

Yes, I am educated. Yes, I’ve got my schooling and looking to get more in grad school. But my identity is also just as tied to the very hills I’ve been raised on and the culture of the hills my people came from as the books I read and the ideas I discuss. Y’all, I am a hillbilly and proud of it. It has taken me a long time to get here and to stop practices I picked up to be more ‘sophisticated’ – like code-switching my natural ‘hillbilly twang’ – but here we are and I’ll very well be damned if I start to back down from reclaiming my identity and standing up to the stereotypes now.

If you stick ‘hillbilly’ in the good old-fashioned search box of Google, you come up with this front and center:

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Toothless. Dirty. Classless. Bigoted. Racist. Anachronistic. Uneducated. Male-oriented. Misogynistic. All of this comes to mind when we think about ‘hillbillies’ as a stereotype. However, this is not what I know of hillbilly culture – or at least not the full picture.

Now, some people I know from my part of the world are racist and bigoted. But guess what? So is the rest of the United States of America – and while this is a conversation for another post and another time, I’m right sick of bigotry and racism being almost exclusively attributed to the ‘ignorant’ Appalachian South. Get off your high horse. If 2016 taught us anything, it’s that there are racists and bigots everywhere en masse in this nation and no amount of explaining or excusing can allow us to ignore that any longer. I am not a racist or bigot apologist, but I am irritated of this being the only identifier of my ‘hillbilly’ kin while the Washington State racists get off scott-free.

Above all else, there is an intricate and beautiful and incredible culture in the hills that is heading toward extinction…

Digression aside, what the Appalachian South is, is poor. Impoverished. That much is true. Eastern Kentucky houses five of the ten poorest counties in the United States of America and the poverty rates in some of these counties exceed 40 percent. The Appalachian South – through its coal, timber, and other resources – is nearly single-handedly responsible for the prosperity in much of the rest of the United States through the Industrial Revolution. Much like how oil-rich countries experience devastating income inequality, Eastern Kentucky, Appalachia and the rest of the hillbilly nation experienced similar effects. Industry poured into the counties, money poured out, and once the industry left, these poor communities became destitute.

But this is not the only story of the Appalachian South or the ‘hillbilly.’ Above all else, there is an intricate and beautiful and incredible culture in the hills that is heading toward extinction at the hands of poverty, drugs, and mainstream portrayals of Appalachia.

I have vivid memories of visiting my family in Eastern Kentucky and stories that were told to me of my family and roots there. Folk traditions, incredible story-telling and musical talents, and other traditions of these people – my people – have colored my identity and my life in a way that I could never and would never want to separate from myself. It is as much a part of me as the color of my hair or my skin.

Hillbilly culture is not exclusively white, brown, black, impoverished, rich, white collar, blue collar, etc.

So yes, by all means I claim being a hillbilly. But more than that, I claim the right to define what that is and stand up for the colorful and diverse background that entails. Hillbilly culture is not exclusively white, brown, black, impoverished, rich, white collar, blue collar, etc. Hillbilly culture and identity is just as diverse as a New York or SoCal or Chicago identity is, and there can be just as much pride in it. Fighting the stereotypes is the first step in preserving this culture in the way it deserves.

Appalachian Reading List: 

For those interested in learning more about Appalachia and hillbilly culture from the sources, see a few recommendations below.

Uneven Ground:  Appalachia since 1945″ by Ron Eller – A good academic read about the history of the region as it relates to the US as a whole and Appalachia today.

“Appalachian Elegy” by bell hooks – A short anthology of poetry by critically acclaimed bell hooks about the complexities of Appalachian identity as a black woman.

The Trillbilly Worker’s Party – A sometimes explicit, but always entertaining podcast form Eastern Kentucky locals dealing with everything from Appalachian stereotypes to the prison industrial complex to women’s health, etc. With a good helping of pop culture on the side.

“Clay’s Quilt” by Silas House – A local Appalachian author, House encapsulates the complex identity issues of modern Appalachians in this piece of a larger literary trilogy, though this is certainly an excellent stand-alone book.

Hello ‘imposter syndrome’, my old friend.

A little over a week away from The Big Move and there are about three million things running through my head.

What clothes can I still get rid of? Have I read enough? Where’s my checklist of things left to do? Does my student bio for my cohort sound dumb?…the list goes on. Chief among these questions is one that literally seems to be keeping me up at night:  am I actually cut out for this?

The Imposter Syndrome™, ladies and gents, is rearing its ugly head again and you know what? I have no solution for it. We could debate all day about why it exists and attacks you – probably some version of the patriarchal double standard in my line of work and a good dose of self-induced gaslighting is part of my equation – but regardless I would say most 20-somethings have felt this crippling phenomenon.

One day you’re leading your team, teaching and training and researching. Everything clicks and works in precision and you are on top of the world. The next you spend your morning struggling with the coffeemaker, feeling uninspired, questioning if you’d even make is as a barista, let alone at anything else. Are you as smart as you think you are? Or is it all a myth you created in your own version of reality?

What’s worse is we all know the omnipresent toxic office “expert” type:  the self-important person who thinks they are great when really they aren’t. They are so out of touch with reality and no one really questions them, but talks behind their back (I also think this is a toxic piece of business/professional culture, but I digress.) You’re thinking ‘Is that me? Am I that one?’

Then, if it weren’t enough, we’re hurled into the cycle again because if we are asking these questions in the first place, surely we can’t possibly be that team member so out of touch with reality. If we’re questioning ourselves and our abilities, then surely we’re just being healthy and practicing good professional growth.

Well, yes and no. Reflection and adaptation are important parts of professional development, but you can go too far. Everyone makes mistakes, makes the wrong call, has failures, but not everyone learns from those failures.

To be honest, I don’t have any more answers than anyone else does on this, except that while The Imposter Syndrome™ is natural, you can’t let it control you. Fears are valid, but so is pride in your own abilities and no one is perfect. I think sometimes this is a more difficult lesson to internalize for women – again harking back to toxic masculinity and sexism in the workplace – but it’s an important one.

And on that note, I’ll return to panicking about packing.

The Devil’s in the Details

My God is there a truer phrase in the English language?

Seven weeks and counting until I pick up my life and move halfway around the world. It’s exciting, no? Except all I can think about are the applications, the car I need to sell (and have sold officially, today), the deposits, the reading list I haven’t completed enough of yet, if my bags are still good enough to make it another transatlantic go around, if I have the right kind of boots, what is my coat situation, etc….

For me, planning has always come second nature.

My mind is running in circles. For me, planning has always come second nature. I’m not an easily shaken person, but I have to have a plan in place. I don’t even mind when things deviate from the plan, but my mantra is to alleviate any potential issues before they become issues. You can’t predict for everything – and in my ripe old age of twenty-four I’ve come to realize that – but you can plan for a lot and I typically do this to a fault. I have spreadsheets for everything. I have spreadsheets for my spreadsheets.

But, it is so easy to get so caught up in the planning and panic and not enjoy the moments.

Seven weeks is not a long time, and I have a lot to plan in those seven weeks, but I also have a lot to cherish and enjoy.

Seven weeks is not a long time, and I have a lot to plan in those seven weeks, but I also have a lot to cherish and enjoy. I have built such a beautiful network of friends and supporters and I wish I had the time to spend with each and every one of them. They are what makes this leaving bittersweet. This is the opportunity of a lifetime for me, but you’ll find when you travel and live in many different places that you’ll always be missing somebody, somewhere.

Undoubtedly I will get to Oxford and will be missing something important that my mother will then have to mail to me. I will also undoubtedly be cursing myself for something that would have been easier had I planned a little better before I left. But at the end of it all, you can only plan so much. The devil is in the details because sometimes the details can steal your joy.

Don’t let the stress of planning steal from you the joy of the experience that comes with it.

Seven weeks and counting, and I commit to not allowing the planning to overtake the excitement of this wonderful time in my life. I would argue this is applicable to so many situations we find ourselves in, whether that’s planning for a wedding, a baby, a new house, etc. So I leave you with this:  If I have any decent advice to give about big life changes, don’t let the stress of planning steal from you the joy of the experience that comes with it.