Looking down the travel way. This photo is by D.A. Hawkins and also serves as the background for his blog.
The Discovery Channel. While many watch it as entertainment, to me it became an opiate of hope. On more than one occasion I watched a show about far-off places before going into work at the mines. I would begin to think, “We could go there and live. We’ll just uproot and go. People do it all the time.” Then I would let the age-old fears of financial risk to my family coerce me back into the hole I worked in. Still, when there was a free moment during work, as I’d stare at the rock dusted ribs of coal and at the grey slate top full of roof bolts with water dripping from them, I’d wonder what other people in this wonderful world of ours were doing.
I would envision a man taking a stroll beside the Lijiang River or a monk meditating in Xiangshan Park, China. Perhaps someone was having the time of their life at a party in Portland, Oregon. Someone may have been looking out over the Ohio River towards the Louisville, Kentucky skyline at night, or a farmer was putting up his combine after harvesting his crops in Southern Illinois. I knew somewhere in the world the waters of a river continuously fell from a height into a large pool, and that waves continuously crashed onto pristine beaches. Snow was silently falling onto pine trees, or the sun was rising, casting vibrant hues of red and orange across a vast ocean. Through these thoughts I would escape the confines of sheer darkness and the knowledge of being miles underground in a hole far away from those magnificent places. Such thoughts were short lived as reality came crashing down when someone yelled at me to get my a** back in the shuttle car or help the scoopman load supplies.
I would often hear Morgan Freeman’s voice go through my head as he portrayed Ellis “Red” Redding in The Shawshank Redemption, “Let me tell you something my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.” Still I had a lot of hope – hope that I could eventually break free from the mental, financial, and emotional bonds that kept me inside the mines.
Many of my co-workers had accepted their job in the mines as fate. Rather than fight it, they just made the best of it in any way possible. With every fiber of my being I could not accept it as my fate. I felt terrible sometimes, especially when I was surrounded by so many men who were willing to just tough it out and do the job. I felt like a wuss, but at the same time I realized I had more potential than this, every man in the whole damn mine had more potential than this. Everyone deserved better than to slave away for the coal companies, trading their health and their family time for ‘good’ money.
How did it ever come to this for so many people? How did it become a fact of life that you’d end up working in a coal mines? Why is it acceptable to destroy your body over twenty years for things you want, or to give your children the things they want? It is honorable in ways, and some coal mines aren’t really all that bad to work in. Still, the dangers exist, and if you have the money to retire you will likely spend it on medical bills trying to fight the many ailments inflicted upon you by years running coal.
It seems as if everyone is preoccupied with the here-and-now, complacent in terms of change and comfortable with life as it is. I recall many times I would become complacent and comfortable. Once I got into the swing of the job was able to accept life as it was. This would go on for a few weeks until something happened, either another close call with death, or I would be screwed out of time with my family to work mandatory overtime. I would snap out of the complacency I was in and seek to get out of the mines, fighting the continuing mental battle of good money and depression vs. no money and financial worry.
Now that I have broken free I have not once regretted my decision to leave the mines. I am unemployed and the worries that come with not having a steady income are enormous, but I am happy, and my family is happy. Sometimes I become depressed when I have trouble finding another job, but then I think about what I left behind and I realize how fortunate I am to be out of the vicious cycles of want vs. need, money vs. life. I realized there are always other possibilities when it comes to make a living. There are always places to stay. As long as as our family is in good health the rest is bullsh*t.
No matter how poor you may be, no matter how little you may own, as long as you have your family and time with them you can be happy. Keep striving for the better, but don’t give up health and time with your family to achieve it.
Family is happiness. Simplicity is happiness.
Daniel Hawkins is a former coal miner from Virginia. Having finally gotten fed up with current labor practices and environmental destruction within today’s Appalachian coal mines, he has left the mines in search of a better future for his family. In this series, he looks into Appalachia’s past and possibilities for the future. You can find his full series on his own blog, http://thoughtfulcoalminer.blogspot.com/. This post originally appeared on Daniel’s blog on Thursday, October 21, 2010.