Thoughts: Underneath the Quiet

West Pawlet

This is where I live. A small town in Vermont. Maybe 300 people in the town and farms that surround it. There used to be some businesses here, when I first arrived. But they are gone now. Now, there is only the post office.

Some of the houses are run down. Some are in the process of being fixed up. For years the three houses on one side of my house were in foreclosure. The house on the other side was empty.  That has changed. People have bought the homes, fixed them up. We have neighbors now and they are good ones.

That is the pattern here. Houses run down. Houses get fixed up. The town is full of places either slowly declining with flaking paint and rotted wood next to houses where people are slowly repairing and painting their homes. But the general impression is that the place is slightly run down.

I live across from a slate quarry that has been abandoned since the fifties. It’s quiet and to my mind, beautiful. Raw, with decades of wild flowers and birch trees springing up randomly. There is a cave where bats lived. Places to simply sit and stare over the mountains. I love to walk there. In recent years, the town, who owns the quarry, has from time to time steam shoveled out slate for use in roadbeds. They’ve made a dent in it. I worry sometimes that they will destroy this place I love so much. But it is out of my control. I accept that and enjoy what is.

Behind me is New York state. There is a rail trail, an old railroad bed that has been cleared to be a walking path. It runs for half a dozen miles in either direction and is lightly used. Quiet.

I like quiet.

I am a quiet person. For someone near to me that quiet can be unsettling. I have spent my life having people ask if something was wrong. Or of they had done something. That is almost never the case. My quiet is just who I am. It is where I am comfortable. If I am quiet, normally things are good, but it’s hard to convince the world of that. Quiet is not our world’s norm. Never has been. 

And so I like this little town we live in. Rush hour runs for about 15 minutes in the morning and afternoon. Maybe 20 cars. After that, you can sit for hours and not see a car or truck. At night, it is a ghost town, everyone hunkered in their warm miner’s houses.

A lot of people heat by wood around here. It is plentiful, cheaper than oil, and so it’s popular. Go outside at night and you can smell the wood burning from a slew of houses. I know technically it’s air pollution, but I love the smell. Sometimes I walk outside for a moment, just to breathe it in. At night, it is silent, and aromatic. It’s wonderful.

I know my immediate neighbors, but not a lot of other people. Even after ten years. Vermont is a typical New England place. People are nice. Friendly. But not outgoing. If you reach out to them, they are as friendly and kind as people anywhere. But when everyone is hunkered down for long winters, there’s not as many people to reach out and meet.

But that’s OK. I like the quiet. I have build a wonderful circle of friends, an odd mix of people ranging from successful business people, artists, small and imaginative entrepreneurs, farmers and a few people like me who live here, and work on the web with people to make their living. Generally we don’t all get together, but we’ve come to know and care for each other. It works for me.

Vermont embraces it’s eccentrics. I like that. It is good for a flatlander (what they call people from out of state, no matter where they came from) like me who lives a patchwork kind of life. A lot of people here live patchwork kinds of lives, and not always by choice. Work, good work, is scarce here. If I didn’t have a career and history that I can parlay into work nationally, I doubt I could make a living here.

But I am glad I can.

This kind of place. Quiet. Isolated; is not for everyone. In the just over a decade I have been here, I have seen any number of people move here, from cities mostly, to live the country life. Very few have stayed. Some knew instantly it was not for them. Others struggled here a year or two and left. A few, like me, stayed.

It is, for some, a hard adjustment. It has been hard for the woman I love. When we married two and a half years ago, she moved here from Massachusetts. It’s been culture shock. Not just the quiet, but the distance. I can get anything I want, if I am willing to drive an hour. No spur of the moment shopping here. No convenience store around the block. No entertainment close by. She is a delightful extrovert. All this quiet is not easy for her. It’s a sign of how much she loves me that she’s here.

Me? I felt at home here almost immediately. It’s strange to come to a place you’ve never been, after living in a place for over fifty years, and feel like you’ve come home for the first time. But that is what happened to me.

I had always suspected I could move and live anywhere, but you never know until you put it to the test. I don’t know if it is because I can adjust to anything, or because this place I lovingly refer to as “Nowhere, Vermont”, is simply that good a match for who and what I am.

When I first moved here, I felt like I had moved to middle America, cica 1955. It was bucolic. There was (and is) a sense of community here that was so appealing. A decade in, I’ve come to know that is just what you see when you visit. Underneath there is every challenge and tragedy of modern life. Broken families and relationships. Drugs abound, as does alcoholism. Poverty, a unique kind of poverty you only find in rural areas, sadness, struggle – it’s all here, only quieter than in the cities where I have lived and worked.

Quiet. I love the quiet. But I have become aware that quiet sometimes hides things. That I have to be less quiet sometimes, to not get lost in the myth that everything is alright. It has not come easy to me. I like the illusion that all is well.

All is rarely well. That does not mean life is awful. But there’s a lot of things under the surface for most of us. It’s only been since I moved here that I came to understand that in the deepest way.  It’s only been since I came here that I became less afraid to ask, to listen to people’s stories in a deeper way. I’ve become more aware of how much of what we see is a carefully curated museum piece designed for public consumption.

I have my wife to thank for that. She’s a social worker. Has been for many years. And she still has a passion for it. She’s always looking for the story behind the story. She is one of those people that others talk to. (I am too, but not on her scale.). Living with her, I have come to realize what a surfacy way of seeing I had. I’ve learned to see in a whole new way.

When your lens changes, you see everything differently. And I do. I still love “Nowhere Vermont”. But I see it differently. The quiet is beautiful. It is soothing to me. But I realize it is a veneer. I can enjoy it (and I do). I can savor it (and I do,). I can find my own peace in it (and I often do.), but I have come to be more like my wife, wondering what lies underneath. And often, discovering it.

It makes you less prone to judgement. Less prone to think you know what is going on. Less sure. More accepting. And hungrier to help.

Some people say my little corner of Vermont never changes. But is has. I’ve seen country stores, farms, diners, small businesses come and go. People come and go. Hearts break. Situations I thought were one way exposed as something else entirely. It is hardly the same place at all, if you look beyond the facades.

The only thing that remains is the quiet. And even that I have come to see differently. I love the quiet, but I am never under the illusion that is truthful. And too is a change.

Be well. Travel wisely,

Tom

2 comments

  1. Wow, nice thought, I have been living in São Paulo all my life, 53 years, there are 12 million of people just in the city that causes a lot of pollution and noise, traffic and violence, so, much of stress. It is wise when we can live anywhere, independent on where it is.

    • I worked in cities ((and sometimes till do) like Washington DC and New York City. Like where you live, too many people. But I always manage to find quiet. I guess I am wired to seek it and see it.

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