Children of Kentucky

Sean of the South



Dear Kentucky,

Your strength moves me. Ever since the tornadoes hit your state, I have been watching you on the evening news. I marvel at your courage. You are beautiful.

I see ambitious big-city news journalists, trying unsuccessfully to understand your downhome accents during interviews. And I watch you tell your most devastating stories while wearing an easy smile, without flinching.

I watch state officials address the public and I hear their voices crack. I see Red Cross volunteers cry. I see children with battered faces, parents wearing borrowed clothes, and young mothers without their babies.

Your communities look like confetti piles. Your land is a mud hole.

And yet you look unshaken. How? How do you do that, Kentucky?

When your sons and daughters stare into the lens, how do they find the mettle to tell the world about loved ones gone missing, tornado-related deaths, or relatives crushed beneath falling debris?

How do these interviewees manage to also tell the camera that they are “Trusting in God,” or “Taking it one day at a time?”

You inspire me.

I’m inspired by the shirtless man wandering a demolished sidestreet, determinedly looking for his dog.

I am moved by the old fella pleading with camera crews to help find his missing wife.

I grieve the seven children who died on the same residential street.

I pray for you, Kentucky. I really do. I pray for your people, your first responders, your transplants, your prodigals, and the lineworkers visiting the Bluegrass State. I pray for your wounded heart, your ravaged lands, and for your splintered gathering places.

I see images of your young ones climbing over haystacks of rubble. I see men and women leading prayer in nuclear war zones. I weep with you. Then I offer a prayer alongside you.

And while I know that the last thing you need right now are the prayers of some average Joe Six-Pack like me, here’s the thing: There are millions of us average American Joes and Josephines praying for you, Kentucky.

Because you are us. And in a way, we are you.

You represent the throbbing heart of our rural soul, live and in color, and you make us proud. We are proud to be from towns the size of area rugs, and honored to be numbered among your distant kin.

We see your determination and we know that we are getting a closeup view of the unbreakable muscle fibers of the American spirit.

My people are just like your people. Although our states are a thousand miles apart, we are alike. I come from salt-of-the-earth individuals who wear Levi’s to funerals, who prefer pickups over Priuses, and whose family heirloom salad bowls have “Cool Whip” printed on the sides.

I understand your accent perfectly, Kentucky. I have a similar one my ownself. I recognize the interior decor of your homes. We drive the same vehicles. We grew up playing the same sports.

Sometimes I see your old men on television and I am struck by how much they look like the men I hail from. Their easy drawls, their friendly faces, their sunkissed skin, and the heavy equipment logos on their ballcaps.

I see your matriarchs and I might as well be looking at my granny, my aunts, my cousins, or my mother. All that’s missing are the cat-eye glasses and the beehives.

I see your children playing in the street, oblivious to the storm-beaten wasteland around them. They look like they could be my nieces, nephews, and cousins.

And perhaps this is what affects me the most, Kentucky. Perhaps what I’m saying here is that I am trying to see myself in you.

Because the truth is, there is a large part of me that wonders whether I will be strong when it’s my turn to suffer. All people will suffer, sooner or later. I know that. I’m no fool. But the question is, will I endure hard times with the dignity you have shown?

I doubt it.

I am not a strong man. I am like most 21st-century Americans. I have become spoiled and soft in the middle. I am entitled, self-centered, and self-important. I stand before a microwave sometimes and yell, “Hurry up!”

I subscribe to five internet movie streaming services and yet I cannot find anything to watch.

I overlook those in need. I don’t always notice the homeless. I care too much about my own comfort.

But when I see you, Kentucky… My God. I see the best part of humankind, shining like a floodlight in the darkness.

I see your young men delivering drinking water to elderly women living in structures made of naked two-by-fours.

I watch large men in bib overalls play gospel piano in roofless homes, singing hymns unto the sky itself.

Upon your soil are the most courageous souls to ever walk the planet. And I find myself wishing that all God’s children could be as brave as the children of Kentucky.

Sean Dietrich is a columnist, novelist, and podcast host, known for his commentary on life in the American South. His work has appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines, he has authored 13 books, and he is creator of the Sean of the South Podcast.