Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Maine: Why We Live Here

Published in the Portland Phoenix; my contribution to a 13-person group essay

I'll blame my sister. Sort of, at least. For a while, having grown up and gone to college elsewhere, and traveled a good bit, I had no home at all. My stuff was in a self-storage unit in Vermont (or in my parents' basement). I had been living out of a duffel bag and a backpack (or just a backpack) for 18 months when I stopped in Portland to visit my sister and some other friends who lived here. I was about to go back on the road for another six-to-eight-month stint and was talking about that prospect, when everything changed. The group ganged up on me and told me that since I didn't actually live anywhere else, why didn't I just live here?

(I suspect they planned this in advance, so well-coordinated was the approach. But they couldn't possibly have known that while on the road, I had so longed for a home, any home, that I had been sketching a house in my journal, just to explore the concept.)

I couldn't answer the question — I actually still can't — and so when I got back from that road trip I borrowed my sister's spare room and went apartment-hunting. Without boring any of you with the quotidian details, I've gotten married, bought a great house (from which I've been walking to work lately in the glorious sunshine), got a dog, found a job I truly love, and see my sister and her children all the time.

But as much joy and pleasure those facts bring to my life, I live here because it has become home. I used to think of other places I lived — Vermont, New Zealand, Antarctica — as home, and for a time, they each were. I carry pieces of them with me every day (even literally — around my neck is a piece of New Zealand jade).

Sometimes, I confess, I long for them. Of late, my faith in Maine has been a bit shaken. One of the biggest things bothering me is that some people are going around claiming — without having asked me — that somehow my marriage and every other marriage in Maine will suffer irreparable harm if we allow more people to marry. If our senses of mutual respect and personal dignity — not to mention outright practicality — are this disjointed and illogical, and if our faith in our own relationships is this weak, I worry what might be next.

But close-mindedness and selfish behavior happen elsewhere. Here, we have an expanded, and more complicated, interdependence. We let each other be, but we look out for each other, too. (A Vermont columnist once described it as knowing that while you and your next-door neighbor may never have spoken or waved after years of living side-by-side, she'll be the first person banging on your door if your chimney catches fire.)

It's spring now, so naturally I'm thinking about winter. It was early morning, and I was going to be late for work because I was digging like hell after one of this year's interminable blizzards, trying to clear the massive snowbank the plows had left at the end of my driveway, when a pickup truck zoomed in from out of nowhere (well, outside my hatted, hooded peripheral vision, anyway), and swiped the berm away in one go. I raised my arms to the sky, thanking whatever heavens had brought this godsend to my aid. It wasn't until the truck came back for a second pass — to clean up the remnants, which were easily shovelable — that I realized it was the guy who runs the business next door to my house. He rolled down the window and his dog's nose poked out. Vinny told me that the dog treats my wife had made and dropped off a couple days before had been quite a hit. I went back inside and told my wife to start making some more biscuits, because it looked like more snow was on the way.

In summer, it's much the same — I was walking the dog once in a local park, and passed a few other people. We said hello just briefly, and went on our ways. And then the dog just plain ran off. Gone. I searched everywhere, yelling, beseeching, pleading, in hopes that he'd hear me and come back. No dice. I had already called my wife to come and help me look when one of the people who had passed earlier came up to me and said he had my dog — his family had seen him running toward the road, and had caught him. They had him on a leash nearby. The relief I felt was the same as at the appearance of the plow: the purity of outright serendipitous good-heartedness from a totally unexpected quarter.

I am not for a moment saying that these kinds of small miracles — and that is the right word — don't happen elsewhere. I am, though, saying that the fact that they happen here so often makes me all the more sure that this is the right place for me.