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Happy Sunday! 

Would you move back home again? 

For some people, it isn't always a choice. College debt, entry-level low-paying jobs, increasing rent prices, inflation, etc. etc. etc. are causing more and people to move into "pods in their parents' yards." (Made ya blink.) Okay, not everyone goes into pods, but we all know it's becoming more and more acceptable to return to our old stomping grounds after moving away for college or what have you. Of my best friends from high school, I'm the exception, not the rule, of moving to an apartment on my own. (Though two of my friends back home did just meet each other on Bumble BFF this week!)

Sometimes it's not the financial pressures that draw you back home. It's the nostalgia, it's the familiarity with where you grew up, it's the feeling that you want to give back. After going to college in-state but leaving West Virginia for grad school and six years of employment afterward, Molly Born decided to take the leap and go back to her roots. She's one of the first members of Report for America, a new initiative encouraging us Millennials to fan out across the U.S. and embed with local news outlets in undercovered communities like Las Cruces, New Mexico; Ridgeland, Mississippi; and Williamson Mingo County, West Virginia, which is where Molly has spent the past seven months. It's definitely a rural environment compared to her past six years in Pittsburgh, but Molly believes it's worth it.

As one of the first three reporters deployed through RFA, Molly has gained notable attention — not just because of her work, but also because she has a tattoo of West Virginia's state motto on her back. ("Montani Semper Liberi", or "Mountaineers Are Always Free".) I wanted to find out more about how she reckoned with moving back to her home state — though she's on the other end of the state from where she grew up — and I ended up learning about her Zumba class, her 66-year-old best friend, and how friendship depends on showing up, even when you live across the county from someone.

Have you moved back home? How have you navigated making friends in your old stomping grounds? (Would you get a tattoo of your state's motto?) Reply to this email and let me know!

Your friend,
Christine

P.S. The subject line was totally in reference to this song, in case you were wondering.
 
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Our chat has been edited + condensed for clarity.

Christine: What is your relationship with your home?

Molly: I grew up in north central West Virginia. I live now in Mingo County, West Virginia, in the southwest corner of the state on the Kentucky border. When I say I moved home I didn’t actually, but West Virginia collectively is home. It’s such a small state and there’s a shared identity of everyone who lives here. I moved back in January. I’d been gone for seven years. I did my undergrad in West Virginia, went out of state for grad school, and spent a little over six years in Pittsburgh which is not very far from my hometown. When I moved back I moved to one of the most isolated parts of my state. I found myself in moving to a place where I had no friends. I’m 30 now. And not only did I not know anyone but people have said be careful — it’s a really long story. If you look up Mingo County there’s some unsavory things that have happeend in the past. Some folks warned me to be careful there, to watch who you trust. Not trusting anyone is a lonely way to live your life (especially as a journalist!). This is a town of 3,000 and some people my nearest friends are 80-90 mi away in Charleston.

Christine: Why didn’t you stay in West Virginia to begin with?

Molly: A lot of people, when they’re in high school, they can’t wait to leave their hometown. I was among them. I went to college at a tiny school not far from my hometown. I didn’t want to do that, but that’s where I went and I’m thrilled I did. People want to get out of town and experience something different. Only in the past couple of years I felt there was a lot of need in my home state. I felt like it would be remiss of me to not work as a journalist in West Virginia. Pittsburgh is doing fine without me. I felt like there was a lot more I could do in a place that’s done a lot for me.

Christine: And so how has it been for the past seven months already?

Molly: To be honest, it's been isolating. I’m in Charleston right now to run some errands and it’s a lovely city. It’s a refuge for me. I love southern West Virginia and the people I've met are really great. I teach a Zumba class at the local gym on Saturdays and that’s a great way to meet people. This morning I ran into a couple women I knew in a cafe; one was in my Zumba class and another I met through a friend. I feel like I’m finally starting to feel more in place here. Zumba has been great.
My closest friend in Mingo County is the 66-year-old chief public defender of Mingo County. I met her because a special reporting interest of mine is social services issues. The name of my now-friend Teresa kept coming up. We had an informal chat when we met and she wasn’t a source. She hasn’t been. She’s just become a friend, a really lovely blessing to have down there.
It was neat because she’s been able to introduce me to other people. I didn’t think my closest friend would be 66 years old. Even though I turned 30 this year I’m an old soul. She reminds me of a second mom. What I’ve learned so far in this process is I draw strength from other people. At my newsroom in Pittsburgh, the Post-Gazette, we were all incredibly close. When you draw strength from other people and you move to a place where there's not very many other people at all, it can be really tough.

A couple of months ago I wound up playing Rock Band at a local shop where they have card games. I’m not into that but some friend of a friend had a projector and a copy of Rock Band. We’re just four adults playing Rock Band together — the oldest one was in the late 40s — and that struck me as a really funny thing. I don’t think I've played Rock Band since college. If you were just sitting there rocking out, it was a special moment that made me laugh. Where I grew up when there wasn’t stuff to do you walked around Walmart or went to the Mexican restaurant again and again. There are some aspects that remind me of being in high school. Other times you allow yourself to be surprised, like with Rock Band.

Christine: Do you feel like you have a different perception of the community than you did before or than you expected?

Molly: The woman who was teaching Zumba in Williamson before I was taught it for years. She’s a generous spirit and all the women in this class are working so hard. They’re kicking ass. They want to be there. Southern West Virginia in some ways is culturally different from where I grew up. Some things are a check on assumptions. I’m not really sure what I thought it would be like to live where I’m living but I was really open to finding out what that was. In Williamson there’s a group of people who run the farmers' market and the CSA that I participate in and they have this Healthy in the Hills running group. There’s definitely stuff that exists there too that I did not know about before I moved that makes it a nice perk of living there. I’ll be here for at least a year. The first six months or so has been daily reporting covering issues in the coalfields. The latter six months will be spent working on capstone project focused on one issue, which we’re still deciding on.

Christine:
Do you have any tips in particular for making friends in a rural environment?

Molly: When you live in a place where there’s not as much to do as in Pittsburgh, you can make your own fun and the Rock Band fun was a good example of it. Also, I go on hikes all the time in the state parks here. The connection to nature is great.

I’ve become close with the folks in my RFA cohort, Caity and Will. They’re both awesome early 20-something kickass reporters. But again we don’t live nearby — Will lives a half hour away and Caity lives in Charleston. But for another example, I met a woman back in January who lives in eastern Kentucky and is part of this shapenote singing group in Kentucky. It’s a traditional style of learning how to sing gospel music essentially in Appalachia.

This woman, Stephanie, is part of this group in Lecher County, Kentucky. I met her in January and we’ve become friends even though we live pretty far. It’s taught me that being willing to go the distance is really important. We laugh about this, when we get together — I think she drives an hour to this town, Pikeville, which is only 30 minutes from me. We shared one of the best weekends I've had since I've been down here. We went to the Goodwill which is really excellent, had a really great meal, and went to a craft shop. I would have happily done it the other way around and driven up to her. You kind of just have a willingness to go the distance to maintain the friendship.

Christine: Is there anything else in particular you’ve learned?

Molly: It’s important for me to keep up with my friendships back home. I left a group of friends back home and outside of my home in Pittsburgh. I’m penpals with a couple of them — snail mail and email too. Maybe I’m an old soul but I love writing and getting letters and emails.

And also, I talk to everybody. I give everybody my phone number; it’s probably a bad idea but I do. I was sitting next to this guy in this coffee shop and we struck up a conversation. Somebody told me years ago to interview two people every day. I don't necessarily do that, but be inquisitive and open and you never know. I’m not saying me and this guy are very close, but he’s opening a jazz club that I’m now going to go to.

Go sow: Challenge for the week. 

✨✨✨
From Molly: "Keep up those friendships with someone who lives far away. It would be really easy for me not to keep up with Stephanie. It would be easy to say we live too far to really build a friendship — but it’s been totally worth making that time."

Grow the Sow.

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