Faith in our beloved Papertown
“Americana”: noun. Things associated with the culture and history of America.
“Grief”: noun. Deep and poignant distress caused by or as if by bereavement; deep sorrow.
“Nostalgia”: noun. Pleasure and sadness that is caused by remembering something from the past and wishing you could experience it again; derived from the Greek language, with “nostos” meaning homecoming and “algos” meaning ache.
Like most people in Haywood County, I’ve been thinking a lot about the sudden decision to close Pactiv Evergreen Packaging, more affectionately known as the Canton paper mill. My heart has been heavy for the workers and their families. While reading articles and watching news clips about the closure, three words keep coming up for me: Americana, grief and nostalgia.
Certain images flood my mind when I reflect on the concept of Americana. Mill towns are high on the list right alongside baseball, main streets and apple pie. My dad grew up in a mill village in Upstate South Carolina. He has fond memories of the row housing, mill village baseball teams and the sense of community that organically flourishes when a mill is the heartbeat of a town.
Almost every Southern person I know my dad’s age and older has a connection to a mill or memories involving mill town culture, so it’s no wonder this topic comes to mind when one thinks of Americana. In Canton, younger generations hold those memories as well because despite odds and obstacles, the paper mill persevered when many other factories shut down.
Champion Fibre Company opened in 1908 and since then, has served as a major employer and economic engine for Haywood County. The signature smokestacks and timber-filled freight cars have been Canton’s backdrop for well over a century. In its heyday, the mill employed as many as 2,000 workers.
I’m not from Canton, but I worked at Pisgah High School and Canton Middle School in my early days as an educator. During my tenure, I observed and felt the closeness of the Canton community. It’s truly something to admire.
Right now there is anger and frustration over the closure and, as time goes on, these feelings will shift to grief. This very complicated emotion isn’t reserved for the death of loved ones. People also grieve the loss of jobs, homes and marraiges. The price of love is grief, and there are thousands of folks who love the Canton mill with everything in them.
When grieving, our fragile psyches go through a series of stages. First comes denial, which can feel like shock, numbness, confusion and shutting down. Then comes anger which presents as frustration, impatience, resentment, embarrassment or feeling out of control. Next comes bargaining which can look like guilt, shame, blame, fear and insecurity. Depression follows, causing feelings of despair, hopelessness, disappointment and overwhelm. Lastly, comes acceptance. When people reach this stage, they feel a sense of pride, courage, validation, self-compassion and wisdom.
For some, the stages of grief transpire quickly and for others, it can take months or years. Many of us want to help the families affected by the mill closure, but perhaps the best way to help is to remember they are grieving. Suggestions to help someone consumed with grief are to be a good listener, respect their way of grieving, accept mood swings, avoid giving advice, refrain from trying to explain the loss, help out with practical tasks, stay connected and available, and offer words that touch the heart.
Eventually, grief will transition to nostalgia. Nostalgia is a bittersweet emotion that combines joy and longing. We’ve all experienced it in one way or another. Studies show that nostalgia can actually do quite a bit of good for our mental health. Thinking about a fond memory or a past experience can reduce stress, elicit feelings of connection and create internal warmth. One day in the future, mill workers and their families will hopefully look at old photos or tell stories with a sense of nostalgia as opposed to a pang of grief.
Like Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers said, “Everyone knows we’re a mill town, but not because of the mill. Being a mill town is about the grit, and when the odds are against you, about overcoming challenges. Ironically, the values of being a mill town are exactly what will get us through this.”
The mill’s whistle is such a part of Canton’s daily landscape that it goes largely unnoticed, but I’m sure everyone will notice its absence. It’s hard on the human heart to move on from comfort and familiarity, and this is a tricky situation because feelings of betrayal and hurt are woven throughout the sadness, but like Mayor Smathers, I have faith that our beloved Papertown will once again rise above. My prayer is that the workers themselves remember this in the dark days ahead.