Yesterday as I came out of a meeting in Pawlet, I ran into two men, one old, the other younger man obviously his grandson. The older gentleman was from New York City. The younger man hailed from Boston.
“We’ve come to see the real America.” the older man told me.
We talked a while. I love where I live, but it is no more and no less the real America as any other place I have lived and worked. That’s the thing about America – this vast crazy mix of places and people that somehow, for generations, has managed to live and at times even celebrate our togetherness in the midst of our differences. I’ve always considered America a miracle. When we cared for each other more than our little niche, we were the most amazing place in the world. A superpower whose strength came from more than guns and armies.
But for this old gentleman, my little corner of Vermont, and the people who live here were “the real America.” He noticed my accent and said the phrase I’ve heard so long since I moved up here nearly a decade ago: “You’re not from here, are you?”
No, I am not. I chose here.
I came for love. That love did not work out as I had thought it might. But I found another love, a healthier love. But it was love that brought me.
Looking back, I also have come to understand that I needed a change of geography. I came here a couple years after a divorce. It was messy and my ex was a constant presence and pressure. It got weird. You don’t need to know the details of the weird. It just was. I had no idea the pain of it all until I moved up here and from my very first day here, felt this great release of tension.
But I didn’t know that at the time. I didn’t realize I probably could have gone almost anywhere and it would have helped my healing. I just happened to land here.
I have had opportunities to leave. But I never have. Vermont has become the place I have chosen. The first place I chose, and continue to choose.
That alone was, I realize, new to me. We tend to gravitate to places because of outside reasons – our family, a job, that sort of thing. Choosing to be in a place, for no other reason than it sings to you, is not the norm. But it is glorious when we do.
This is where I love. It is beautiful. It is rural as rural can be. Old time America rural with small family farms, small towns, mountains and valleys. There is a sense of real community here. Rush hour is about 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the evening when people are going to work. On a clear night, you can see the Milky Way scattered across the sky like diamonds. If you don’t scratch too deep, it feels like 1955. Bucolic and peaceful.
It’s not as perfect as it seems. It’s 2018 and my beautiful little corner of the world has all the problems any town or city has. Unemployment or underemployment is rampant. Over fifty percent of the children here live under the poverty level. There are drugs, domestic violence, abuse. All the plagues of the modern world are here in the same percentages, maybe worse, of America everywhere, hidden sometimes in the beauty and the distance we all live from each other.
Mostly, it’s an incredibly tolerant place, my little corner of the world. It’s very white, but my experience as I have seen other races settle in is that people don’t really seem to care what you are, if you are tolerant yourself. This place has been something of a safe haven for gays, iconoclasts, eccentrics, hermits and whatever left turn in your personality shines brightest. I have the most diverse, interesting, kind group of friends you can imagine.
Vermont is the least churched state in the union. We have lots of church buildings. Every town has a few. But go there on a Sunday and you will see congregations with 10-15 people in the pews. Most are over 70. When I began at my own little church, there were eight of us. (five of them in the choir!). For someone like me who came from a part of the South where the Bible Belt thrives.
Churches are not perfect, mind you. Most of them, including mine, are flawed because they are made of people. But there is no better way to get to know God, to build a loving faith community, and band together for good. Yes, we can worship God just fine by ourselves, but we can do and be so much more together. And here, churches are small and isolated, This took some getting used to, the idea of going from being mainstream, to being a gentle missionary.
People talk to you here. Not at first maybe. When I first came here the few people I got to know all told me the same thing – it will take three years for people to start talking to you. And it pretty much worked out that way – if I waited for others to talk. If I pushed past my natural shyness and started conversations, people are about as friendly and nice as you will find anywhere. A chance encounter can turn into a thirty-minute conversation.
You can make a difference here. You don’t need to be powerful or rich. It’s a small place and people help each other. You can see the differences you make. You can’t change the world, but changing one person’s world makes a big difference and you learn again the power of one person caring.
You can walk here. The seasons are defined by farm life and nature, not a calendar. There are trails and creeks and nature preserves everywhere. This is not a place for power walking, but a place for meandering, wandering, pondering kinds of walks.
Vermont has its own version of time, and it’s slower than most of the world. “Soon” generally means “eventually.” That took some getting used to, but I have learned that it’s healthy and less stressful.
That may be what I love best about living here. It’s an incredibly low-stress place to live, as long as you have work enough to pay the bills. My first fifty-four years of life were full of stress. Too much of the stuff. I had come to think of it as normal, all that stress. I don’t anymore. Stress is optional. It’s a choice.
And unknowingly, I chose here. A less stressful place. A place where I can think, ponder, create, rest and grow at my own speed and mostly, people adjust and are OK with it. The lessons I have learned here I could take anywhere. But I had to come here and choose to stay here to learn them in my bones.
What have I learned? That flawed as I am, I have value. That God lives in us if we allow him. That kindness works in the real world. That we can be whatever we want to be, if we have the courage. That waiting for love is fine. That tolerance makes a great place to live for everyone. That the place we choose changes us, so we need to choose them carefully. That even old like me, we can and need to grow. That making a choice of where and how we live is power. The best kind of power.
These are lessons we mostly know in our heads and hearts. But I know these things in my bones. May you find a place that seeps into your bones as well. It’s worth the leap of faith. More than my puny words can say.
Be well. Travel wisely.
PS – the picture is of my little village, West Pawlet, Vermont. It was taken yesterday from the top of an abandoned slate quarry across the street from my home.