Thursday, October 18, 2012

Life in a Beautiful Place

I believe that one point of Our Town[1] is to realize that everywhere is Grover’s Corners.

That truth aside, I’ve more than once described my little village as seeming like Thornton Wilder’s imagined New Hampshire hamlet. My town is a collection of little roads, looping back and forth across each other and all mostly hidden between the main road and the National Forest. There is a church with a white steeple and a bell that rings at noon and six. The local school has kindergarten through sixth grade and people regularly worry that not enough local babies will be born to keep the school going much longer. In the winter, you can ski on Nordic trails almost anywhere in town, including to the library, the post office, the local down hill area that keeps cubbies for the grammar school students, and the historical society. I think that we’ve got more picturesque inns and charming bed and breakfasts per capita than anywhere outside of the BBC. The geographic center of town is the green with a duck pond, a walking loop, soccer fields and a weekly, local, seasonal, farmer’s market[2]. In the few places around town where you cannot see the not-so-distant White Mountains, you are consoled with shorter range views of the local hills, the historic bridges that span gurgling rivers and babbling brooks, the flowers and foliage and snowscapes. Personally, I like the frozen pillows of snow-covered rocks in the icy snow choked river in the winter. And the lilacs. And the crisp stars.

I could hardly live in a more beautiful place.

But, like anywhere, it’s got a few drawbacks. All this beauty means the town is swollen with tourists, except in November, April, and May. We need them, obviously, but it’s not an entirely easy relationship. I think that, psychologically, it can’t be healthy for a region to depend so heavily on jobs in various iterations of a service industry. It is hard to always be downstairs, rather than upstairs—you may begin to believe you are as limited as you are often treated[3]. And, I wish that people would remember to pack their common sense, self-awareness, and manners when going on vacation. Simply, it is hard to make a functional life here, rather than dancing around trying out different seasonal jobs that cater to visitors in some way or another.

I had this thought in mind the other day when I ran into one of the published writers who lives in town. The author said[4] that I remind them of their younger self, just a young person casting around for what my life is going to be[5]. We chatted in this vein for a few minutes, with me nodding mostly and occasionally throwing in a comment about how my generation—or perhaps just the people I know—are not measuring ourselves by the same bench marks as previous generations. For example, I do not need a lumpy diamond ring, a morgage, some babies, a 401K, or a white picket fence to feel as if I’ve made it in this world.[6]

Regardless, after this idly well-intentioned and banally agreeable chatter, the author asked me how old I am. “Oh…” came the tepid response, “you’re not really that young any more, are you?”[7]

For fuck’s sake.

I was then regaled with this person’s plan for a new book—the story of coming out of the city and into the mountains, into this simpler way of living. How the image held in this writer’s brain—before coming to the mountains—was of making muffins on a crisp fall morning with the mountain views in the distance. I’ve done just that, more thoroughly than most can, and it was one of the great experiences of my life. But this entire book proposal of my neighborhood scribbler seemed off.

Being called old, essentially, irked me less[8] than the continuing trope of lionizing, celebrating, only one kernel of the truth about a place. Often, I am late for work because the roads are full of slow-driving tourists, trolling the highway for their annual dose of our local simplicity and quaintness. What we don’t need, what this place doesn’t need, is another book on that subject.

I have more patience with the word “simple” than I do with “quaint,” but only by the slimmest of margins and my acceptance of either is totally dependent on context. I could rage up a storm about the condescending ignorance of many of the tourists I encounter, who seem to assume that I must be some sort of slow-witted noble savage because I live here, but now is not the time[9].

What got me, this time, was the assumption that here is the only place where life could be simple or beautiful or good. Or that a life lived here is inherently simpler, more beautiful or better, through sole virtue of geography. Mountain towns are mountain towns, for better or worse. We’re short on jobs and long on beauty, this is true. I’m finding more and more that the toll of making a living here cuts, vastly, into the amount of time to get out and enjoy the local beauty that pulled me—like a magnet—here in the first place. It’s not a simple place.

Really, one can bake blueberry muffins and watch how the sunlight plays in the muffin-steam anywhere. It will be beautiful and life-affirming in any place. It’s true that one can’t be on skis or above treeline everyday in another place, but living here, I don’t have time to do those things anyway, much as I might like to. I’ve got my jobs to get to, my groceries to buy, my oil to change, my wedding to plan, my country's 500th anniversary to arrange, my wife to kill, and Guilder to blame for it; I’m simply swamped…

My mountain town home—warts and skinny legs and all, as I see it, living here—is someone else’s beautiful, stylized, fetishized “other.” This sense that we only look for beauty outside our own spheres is sad, at best. I was in a large city recently and was overcome with the riot of morning glories exploding out of every dooryard. Morning glories, as they twist out into fairy-trumpets from the nocturnal state—when they look like chewed strings—are some of my favorite flowers. It’s a sunrise, best-foot-forward, dare-to-hope-today-will-be-wonderful, kind of flower. I love that, and how delicate they seem, but how sturdily and quickly they take over porches and trellises.

A few blocks later, a man on a bus stop bench offered to sell me a poem. Because of the morning glories, I didn’t need a poem to get through the strange street. Another day and I would have grasped his poem like a life preserver,[10] needing the familiarity of words and beauty even if the terrain was unfamiliar and overwhelming. Knowing that flowers and poetry exist even in grubby, paved street hemmed in by buildings and traffic and bustling people…that is something more valuable than either.

It is a mistake to assume that beauty or a good life can be found in only one place. I’ve spent a long time thinking that—hence why I am here in this town, but I’m finding, more and more, that the trick is to learn how to look, everywhere. I’ve no objection to any sort of travel in search of beauty or adventure. I just don’t like the assumptions that life is simpler or better based on geography. If you believe that it is, you’re missing out on too much. Morning glories against a chain link fence on an empty lot and the fire of maple leaves against a brilliant blue October sky—neither are simple, one is not better than the other, but both are worth the time to notice.

Like I said, everywhere is Grover’s Corners, if we can only realize it. I’m trying.

[1] Read it. Now.
[2] Which, I blame, for the creation of this blog.
[3] Even the Crawleys of Downton Abbey get better story lines than their servants.
[4] With best intentions, I’m trying to believe.
[5] As this is not someone I know well, I was taken aback that my eclectic life trajectory is so transparent.
[6] I’ll happily settle for one job, (year-round, full-time, with health insurance), access to arable land and the alpine zone, a stack of books, and some attractive dude(s) to make out with.
[7]That is verfuckingbatim. WHO THE HELL SAYS THAT?

[8] Slightly.
[9] Although, this is probably just the place for just such an impotent rant.
[10] Not inaccurate…William Carlos Williams, Asphodel.

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