Mountains conjure scenic images from Appalachia to Colorado, Switzerland, Tibet, and beyond. Typically, mountains symbolize permanence and immovability and can even represent spirituality and God. Monks build monasteries in picturesque mountains which are decidedly remote and inaccessible believing that these holy places should be places of peace and solitude.
Our Appalachian Mountains are spiritual, representing infinite endurance and unchangability. In Transcendentalism and the Cultivation of the Soul, Retired Unitarian, Universalist Minister Barry M. Andrews writes thatHenry David Thoreau and the Transcendentalists believed in finding God through nature and, more specifically, believed that the prerequisites of spiritual life lie in solitude, contemplation, meandering in nature, and a simple life.
Some monks, like Appalachian trail hikers, undergo pilgrimages and difficult walks in mountains to bring them closer to nature, for meditation and prayer, and for releasing worldly worries—they long to deeper understand man’s position in nature and the cosmos.
I long to visit the mountains to cultivate my soul and to utilize the powers of these mountains to heal and to grieve. I, along with our entire community, have lost numerous colleagues, young adults and students. I need to heal from loss of lives, loss of family, loss of connection, loss of love, loss of young people taken too soon, loss of companionship, loss of security, and loss of friendships. These feelings of grief stand in stark contrast to the mountains’ symbolic meaning of permanence and unchangeability. Perhaps it is their permanence, in the face of loss, that I crave.
This constant feeling of loss seems overwhelming at times. Nevertheless, it’s part of my story, of our story in Upshur County, in WV, and in all of Appalachian. We’ve lost so much, lost so many, right? Each of us in different, painful scenarios.
Though devastating and heartbreaking, my story is not unlike that of most everyone I know. Losing family members, loved ones, friends, co-workers, youth, and community members is normal here. Whether we blame economic depression, the drug epidemic, decreasing life expectancy, poor health, mental health issues, healthcare, lack of faith, or any other myriad of possible contributing factors, the results are undeniably the same. People die. People leave. People move on. Yet, the loss exists as an ache in the heart that won’t cease.
To symbolize impermanence, Buddhist monks create Mandalas from colored sand granules as a form of meditation, placing the grains of sand together one at a time within a circle to create beautiful art. This process requires time, creativity, focus, and discipline. The word “Mandala” comes from Sanskrit meaning “the whole.” For monks and Buddhists, the Mandala represents wholeness and being present. Yet after each Mandalas completion, monks immediately wash away the creation, only to begin the process anew. This ritual represents the impermanence of life and of all things and serves as a reminder that we, as humans, must accept the temporary.
I try to remember the monks’ lessons and take solace from the mountains’ messages. I get it– intellectually, symbolically, and spiritually; I believe the lessons. Nothing on earth remains permanently; life does go on after loss, after death. My heart, however, resists this information. My human self says, “No! No! Don’t go. Stay with me. I love you.” To no avail.
I’ve been struggling with loss as a preconceived notion that its existence occurs somehow linearly and controllably. I tell myself lies to cope –that the older will die first, therefore, we can be prepared for that and have solace that they lived a long life. I tell myself that enough love will cause another person to love in return, that holding on will make them stay, that my loved ones will remain with me. The truth? I have no idea who I will lose next and for what reason. None of us does. It could be me. I could be in a car accident or die from any number of natural causes within the next moments. My eighty-six-year-old father, about whom I constantly worry, could outlive me. Loss is not linear, and we cannot control impermanence. That’s truth.
American snowboarder and Olympic gold-medalist, Jamie Anderson, who fell in love with the mountains and spent nearly every day on mountains since the age of nine, wrote in a March 25, 2014 blog, “…Grief, I’ve learned, is really love. It’s all the love you want to give but cannot give. All of that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, and in that part of your chest that gets empty and hollow feeling. The happiness of love turns to sadness when unspent. Grief is just love with no place to go.” This, too, seems to be truth.
Across Upshur County, WV and Appalachia, folks know grief and loss. Our residents move away, leave loved ones and never return, and die at an alarmingly high rate, and we cannot control this. I cannot control this.
I’ve heard it said that these hills, our Appalachian Mountains, can talk. Those who really listen can hear their wise words. What stories do these mountains tell? I hear stories of grit, survival, and hope in the midst of despair. The mountains describe, to me, a people for whom loss and grief have become such a part of life that we cannot separate it from us, from our very roots and culture. From the coal miners of the past to the struggling Appalachians and Appalachian communities of today struggling with poverty, illness, and the addiction epidemic, heartbreak prevails. I wonder if it’s the same for the monks in their monasteries on their mountains?
Ashley Monroe, country music singer and songwriter, said, “I think, being from east Tennessee, you’re kinda born with a little lonesome in your soul, in your blood. You know you’ve got that Appalachian soul.” I think our mountains are adept at crying, at screaming, and at mourning because of witnessing generations of pain and sorrow. If these hills could speak, our WV hills would be good at good-byes.