Commusings: “That’s Just the Way Things Are” by Ash AmbirgeDec 13, 2020
A Fractured Fairytale from Rural Pennsylvania
• • •
I didn't tell her about the D.U.I.
Nor did I tell her he had lost his license because of it.
I wanted to date him so badly.
My mother wouldn't have understood.
• • •
I would drive the eighteen miles to his house, down the windy hills, through the decaying town of Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, and then out toward the countryside in Jackson. He lived on the farm with his dad; got up at three o'clock in the morning to milk the cows; kept the calves in extra small pens so their muscles would stay soft for the day they became veal. (The day I discovered this, we fought. “That's just the way things are,” he declared.)
I'd keep clothes at the farm, in case I stayed over. Sometimes I'd get up with him in the middle of the night, because that's what you do when you're young and in love. The first time he asked me if I could help corral the cows into the barn, I laughed: “How do you expect me to do that?”
“Just take this stick,” he instructed in the dark. “And walk to the edge of the field.”
“You want me to hit them?”
“You won't have to do anything like that,” he laughed good-naturedly.
Sure, I thought. I pictured having to place both hands on the arse of a Holstein, pushing forward with all my might through the mud. I pictured cooing at the cows, clucking at them with my tongue, trying to sweet-talk them the way you do a cat. "Psst psst psst pssst psssssst, hereeeee little cowkitty kitty." And I pictured trying to figure out what I was *really* supposed to do with this stick.
I trudged to the far edge of the field as directed, stepping around depressions and dung, side-eyeing the herd with heavy skepticism. Finally, when I made it to the end, I took a deep breath and, feeling absolutely foolish, did as I was told.
I held up the stick.
Stood there sheepishly.
And then, spellbound, I watched what happened next.
The moment the stick went into the air—held by a five-foot-three teenage girl with frizzy hair and sweatpants—it was like magic: each and every one of the cows systematically merged to form a line, trudged silently back up the hill, and filed seamlessly into the barn, no questions asked. There was no need for prodding or poking: it was automatic. Stimulus and response. Stick = walk. Right on cue. And not only did all fifty of them file effortlessly and orderly into the barn, but perhaps even more remarkably, they went directly to their assigned stall. They knew – exactly – which one was theirs, and I suspect there was nothing you could do to tell them any different.
That was just the way things were.
• • •
The following spring it was announced that I, Ashley Ambirge of trailer park fame, had won a full scholarship to a private university. The billionaire magnate chairman of Monster.com, Andrew McKelvey, had also grown up in rural Pennsylvania, and he wanted to give back. The scholarship was based on entrepreneurial spirit and financial need. When I went to Penn State for the final interview, however, I was sure I had lost my chance: the final question he asked me was, “If you don't win this scholarship, will you still go to college?”
I whispered, “yes.”
• • •
Weeks later, I wrote a letter. It was addressed to The McKelvey Foundation. I told them about the farm and the boy who worked on it. I told them what a hard worker he was, how much potential he had. I proposed a less expensive college for me, in exchange for a second scholarship for him.
Miraculously, The McKelvey Foundation said yes—and didn't even make me switch to a less expensive school.
Everything was perfect. In a matter of weeks, we'd be college students together at nearby universities. We were all set to go. I wasn't just dating the boy: I was saving him.
Then he delivered the news.
It was just the way things were, he said.
• • •
Three years later I returned home after studying abroad. My mother was still alive. I had the world in the palm of my hand. That's when I got the phone call in the dead of the night.
“You're here,” he said.
“It's late,” I said.
I hung up the phone but the calls kept coming.
Then the third.
And the fourth.
Eventually, I disconnected the landline and retired back to bed. I never imagined he'd show up at our doorstep.
“Mrs. Ambirge, let me in,” he repeated, his voice, cold, flat, and unrecognizable. My mother came out to see what was going on. He placed his foot in between the door and the wall.
That's when I knew he was doing more than just drinking.
• • •
I visited him in jail. That's what you do when you're young and from a place like mine: you bleed for the people you love. Because when you grow up in a small town, people aren't just people: they're your whole identity.
“What did you expect?” he barked. “You left me here.”
“You had the same chance that I did,” I cried.
“But I never really did,” he replied.
I didn't understand what he meant, then.
• • •
A decade later, I saw him walking. Pulled over to give him a ride. I was passing through my hometown on my way to New York City, to a publishing meeting at Penguin Random House headquarters.
“You were always going to be bigger than the sky”" he said with a faint, broken smile.
“You know you can still get out of here, right? You know you can do and be anything you want, right?”
“It's too late for me,” he replied.
That's when he pulled the drugs out of his backpack. Meth, heroin, and cocaine, he stated matter-of-factly. But the cocaine was only there as a backup plan.
• • •
I think about that day often. I think about what might have been, had he known what I did: that what you believe about your odds are more important than your actual ones.
I began in a trailer park with a mom who had severe social anxiety and never left the house, eventually culminating in her death when I was in college. I've been alone in this world for more of my life than not. And yet, I always knew that no matter what happened, I had control over my next decision. The next decision has always been mine—it was the one thing that no one could ever take from me. That mentality has propelled me through life, resulting in humbling—and often delightful—success.
Today I’m a professional writer and author, with a book being translated around the world and a business that teaches others how to find their voice, along with a full plate of advanced degrees and fancy things that go on résumés.
The knowledge of my own personal agency saved me. Nothing has ever merely been “it is what it is,” but rather, “it is what I decide.”
But perhaps that’s why personal agency is sometimes difficult: decisions require authority. And that’s the one thing people in places like mine aren’t allowed to have.
• • •
You've recently seen my hometown on a map: it was colored in bright, bold red during the election. Located in rural Northeastern Pennsylvania, 72.14% of the population voted for Donald Trump in 2016—and this past November, it was one of the counties Democrats were intensely worried about. In fact, I saw on Facebook that an old friend from high school was hosting an election party with her deck covered in flags that said, "TRUMP 2020: NO MORE BULLSHIT." (If that gives you any indication.)
There has been a lot of speculation about why. Why, why, why? HOW? The coastal elite have been straight-up confounded by the Trump phenomenon. I'll admit, I've spent a lot of time being confounded myself. But one thing I know for sure is this: when you don’t have much certainty in your life, you’ll do anything to be led.
• • •
In the book Hillbilly Elegy—now a movie on Netflix—J.D. Vance writes the following about his experience growing up in rural, working-class white America:
“It's about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it. The problems that I saw at the tile warehouse run far deeper than macroeconomic trends and policy. Too many young men immune to hard work. Good jobs impossible to fill for any length of time. And a young man with every reason to work—a wife-to-be to support and a baby on the way—carelessly tossing aside a good job with excellent health insurance. More troublingly, when it was all over, he thought something had been done to him. There is a lack of agency here—a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself."
His observations about social decay are accurate as it pertains to our shared experience, but I suspect most of Vance's observations about work ethic are, perhaps, unique to him. I'll say it plainly: that has not been mine.
In fact, the people I grew up with are some of the most industrial, independent, autonomous people around. Hard work is ingrained into the psyche. We get jobs at age 13, we learn how to drive stick and navigate icy, hilly roads, and we run down to pick up cigarettes for our parents at the gas station. We know how to wake ourselves up every morning and get ready for school—I'd bring my mother her coffee every morning in bed before I left—and we drive forty-five minutes on the highway to exchange our empty soda cans for five cents apiece.
Furthermore, we know how to shoot and kill our own food (the first day of deer hunting season is a school holiday), repair our own roof (I'd have to re-coat our trailer roof annually); and get ourselves to and from basketball practice before going home to help make dinner, finish our homework, and get up at dawn to do it all again (leaving enough margin of time in case the pipes were frozen in the morning, requiring an extra 20 minutes to crawl underneath the skirting with a hairdryer to warm them up so there would be running water that day).
In my experience, work ethic is not the problem.
But there is a difference between self-sufficiency and self-efficacy.
• • •
Self-sufficiency versus self-efficacy: one requires confidence in the things you already know, whereas the other requires confidence in the things you've yet to learn.
Somewhere along the way, communities in rural America stop being encouraged to learn.
Somewhere along the way, you, yourself, become another instance of “just how things are.”
Why is that? Why is it the case that, in some places, children grow up to be these fearless, remarkable leaders—the Greta Thunbergs and the Malala Yousafzais—diving headfirst into the world, determined to change it, whereas in other communities, children grow up holding the world at arm’s length, convinced they should avoid it?
You’d think that in a community culture where people wield guns and chop down wood, one’s sense of self-authority would skyrocket. But that is the Catch 22 of being indoctrinated into a small town: you are expected to be independent, but not act independently. Too much independence is bad for the health of the tribe. It threatens the safety of the group. It endangers a cultural narrative. And in a place like home, the cultural narrative is simple:
We > I.
The focus on the group dynamic can be witnessed in big and obvious ways—like the fact that every person you went to school with is related to one another in some obscure or direct way, putting more pressure on an individual to stay “where they belong”—but also in silent and subtle ways. It’s the knowing wave we all give one another when driving down the three lanes, making you feel like you’re part of the “in” crowd. It’s knowing whose seat in the cafeteria belongs to whom, which person’s mom works where, and who you don’t joke about because they have it really bad at home. (No one except one kid, ever, picked on me for living in a trailer.) It’s also the knowledge that if you get left at the school, someone will give you a ride home. If you get snowed in, little Joey will come plow you out. If you need a hand at the barn, your girlfriend will bring her clothes.
But whatever you do, don’t betray the group.
Don’t act bigger than you are.
Don’t challenge the way things are done.
Because there’s a cost to being in a group like ours, and that’s your individuality.
• • •
The word “authority” comes from the root word “author”—meaning "master," "teacher," or "leader,” and this makes sense: leaders stand out as authorities and try to change the status quo, whereas followers fit in and keep things flowing smoothly.
And so in a small town like mine, most people carry on and fit in and behave in culturally acceptable ways, and they do so in the name of the greater good. But here’s the secret they wouldn’t want you to know: it. hurts. Because any human who isn’t allowed to fully express themselves is in pain.
Enter Donald Trump.
You know which other word coincidentally has the same root of “author?” Authoritarian. In reflection, this is why I believe a town like mine has advocated so much for his presidency: he offered a renewed sense of authority most people didn’t realize they were missing. Donald Trump is the closest thing to personal agency many have felt in a very long time. Even if they are unable to break free from the group and do something radical themselves, they can join the group and do something radical together.
They don’t have to leave the farm.
They don’t have to challenge social norms.
They don’t have to do anything that will result in disapproval.
But in one small way, they get back a sense of ownership—even if it’s a simulation. Even if it’s a pretense. Even if it’s nothing but a mere facade.
Because Donald Trump also understood something very, very important:
What you believe about your odds are more important than your actual ones.
And turns out, that can be leveraged for good, or for bad; in the name of a college application, or in the name of the country.
“Make America Great Again” wasn’t just a campaign promise: it was a way to convince the population of perceived authority, when in reality the real goal all along?
Was to hold up a stick.
Corral people into an ideology.
And make those who’ve been forgotten, feel like they belong.
• • •
Ash Ambirge is an author, entrepreneur, and founder of The Middle Finger Project, a blog about following your passions (unless you’re a serial killer). Her work focuses on helping women find their voice and use language as a tool to increase upward mobility, create economic opportunity, and increase their sense of personal agency in their career and life. Her book, The Middle Finger Project details how she was able to use language in creative ways to permanently alter the course of her own life.
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Commusings is a curious and contemplative commentary on the current and timeless from Commune Co-founder Jeff Krasno (and occasional guest writers). These weekly writings help us envision a collective path forward through deep thinking, quiet listening, and honest conversations about spirituality, philosophy, and culture. Subscribe to the weekly Commusings newsletter here.
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