Unwritten Bios: How the Places We Live Shape Us

“These fields stretch out like patchwork on my granny’s quilt. She used to tell me, ‘Life is a series of strange and mysterious things.’” –Jewel, “1,000 Miles Away”

The view from Buffalo Mountain in Southwest Virginia

I’m from western Pennsylvania, a distant and strange land also known as Steelers Country. Two college degrees, countless travels, and a few moves later, those mountains still live inside me. I know people who are ashamed of where they come from. And I can’t be. I’m grateful. My ancestors—who came from Ireland and Germany to settle in Pennsylvania in the mid-19th century—made incredible sacrifices for me to have a shot at my dreams. I’ve always known how hard they worked and how much they gave, and I’ve always given life, love, and art all I’ve got.

My great-grandfather worked in the coal mines; most people in my hometown (which is named after the freakin’ coal company, no lie) can trace their roots to the coal companies in some way. It was a shit job, too. He once walked home on a broken ankle. Another time, his clothes burned off in a fire. He was a coal digger before he finally landed a “safe” job riding the back of the cart that went down into the mines to be loaded up with coal. He had to jump off the cart and flip a switch that determined which set of tracks the cart would go down. One day, not long after landing his “safe” job, he was killed when the cart jumped the tracks and pinned him. He was 40 years old. My grandmother told me, point blank, “He had a horrible, miserable life.” I wish he’d had better. If he sacrificed so his children and children’s children and on down the line could have better, I am eternally grateful for it. I try never to waste a day of it.

Now, I’m glad I don’t live in western PA anymore. There wasn’t anything left for me there. The job market had dried up, and my hometown didn’t have much to offer, not even a bookstore. But I still carry the stories of my ancestors with me. Because of their sacrifices, I’ve had amazing chances. I’ve earned two colleges degrees, taught at a major research university, and, best of all, had the chance to practice the craft of writing. I’m a storyteller, and that is an amazing gift, one for which I am eternally grateful.

It’s hard to imagine that it’s been nearly six years since I left my hometown. It feels like so much longer. Today, my life is full of a new place, the beautiful mountains of Virginia and the small town I currently call home. No matter where I go, this place will stay with me.

The places we live, even if we leave them, remain inside us. They get under our skin, shaping us in ways we can’t understand until we’re away. I learned about magic and possibilities in the mountains surrounding my family’s farm. I also saw firsthand how fragile the land is, how irreplaceably precious. I’ve seen slag heaps so high they look like mountains themselves and water permanently tainted sulfuric orange thanks to acid mine drainage. But there are many places where the land is not scarred, and unspeakable beauty dwells there: ferns and grapevines, maple and apple trees, and tiny creeks swollen with clear water in the spring.

Today, nature infuses my stories. I can’t help but let it. In so many ways, my stories are born in the natural world. A full moon, a constellation, morning mist at the brow of the mountain, a tree’s gnarled roots, or the ocean’s lullaby—these are the birthplaces of my stories.

What is your unwritten story? How have the places you’ve lived left their traces on your soul?

8 thoughts on “Unwritten Bios: How the Places We Live Shape Us

  1. Janelle, thanks so much for sharing. My own ancestors have left their mark on me as well and I love them all for it. All their travels, explorations, and struggles down the line brought me to a better place and I am grateful each day for that.
    I have lived many places, and they have all left their mark on me. That picture in your post reminds me of the barren lands of Baffin Island. No matter how lush or barren, the earth is always powerful and she will always claim your heart.
    May your journey be blessed.

  2. Beautiful post!
    I always find it interesting how these places also influence our writing, not just in setting but in overall feel. We tend to have our creative worlds reflect the same feelings we experienced. Everytime I write about something scary or dark my mind goes back to the woods back behind my house when I was a kid. Everytime I attempt to create a sense of belonging and comfort I go back to the downtown portion of the city I grew up in. Its a funny and wonderful thing

    • That’s so true. Whenever I think about creating a sense of peace or serenity, the woods around my family farm come to mind. Since I grew up in a region full of rural areas separated by blink-and-you-miss-it towns, I tend to associate excitement and action with the big cities I once dreamed of visiting. I never really thought about it that way before. Thanks!

  3. lovely post, thanks for sharing. I’m from Calgary – a Canadian entrepeneurial city of slightly more than a million people. We’re the head of the Canadian oil patch, so money flows and jobs abound. We are very highly educated (as a population) and the most wired city in the country. So yes, it has influenced me a lot. The all or nothing attitude of the oil industry – the go for it and get it done attitude, these all influence who I am. and the Calgary Stampede is 10 days of partying, rodeo, fairgrounds and fun. We all get 1/2 day off with pay to attend the parade…lol

    thanks for taking me down memory lane. I can’t imagine living anywhere else. Calgary is home.

    • Calgary sounds like an interesting place! I love that you get a 1/2 day of paid vacation to attend the parade. In my hometown, it was customary for schools to close the week after Thanksgiving for the first week of buck (hunting) season. I know how strange that seems to the rest of the world, but hunting, Steelers football, and Friday-night high school football games were the big deal there. I enjoy reading your posts about Calgary. There are so many fascinating places in this world. Thanks, Louise!

  4. I went away from my very small home town for school (two degrees) and came back because after the years I spent in bigger cities, I missed the way of life here. People are friendlier and more helpful to strangers. It’s a slower pace of life, and possessions seem to matter less than reputation. Unfortunately, the job market is stagnant, so my husband and I are now facing the tough decision of needing to leave in order for him to find a better job.

    • I live in a small town in Virginia now, but it’s a college town, so we’re very fortunate to be able to work at the university. Like your hometown, people here are friendlier–and most of us have some school spirit in common!

      Sadly, the way the economy is, a lot of people are just following the jobs–going where the work is. I hope it works out and you get to live in a place that you love.

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