Here is a list of the parallels between my life and Andrew Schwartz’s (“Traveling Stories,” March 1997): (1) my parents divorced; (2) I moved in with Mom; (3) Mom’s next partner was my father’s friend; (4) I was a bag boy at a grocery store; (5) I longed for attention from female cashiers; (6) Mom freaked out behind the steering wheel after I harassed her “mercilessly”; (7) my contempt for my father was fueled by my mother’s bitterness toward him; (8) I learned, from my mother, “more than I wanted to know” of my father’s failures; (9) I still loved my mother; (10) I feared that I’d inevitably become the man she described, and tried desperately to avoid that; (11) my father took me to Torremolinos, Spain.
That was the kicker.
(12) I hurt my father by behaving like a “self-absorbed little prick”; (13) I secretly embraced my father’s values; (14) I embrace them still.
How separate are we all?
When I first read Ellen Rosner’s disparaging description of Sun readers as “liberal white people with long hair living in the country, wearing Birkenstocks, and home-schooling their children” (Correspondence, February 1997), I was immediately sympathetic. What an annoying bunch, I thought.
But then I thought, Wait. I’m a liberal white person living in the country. I don’t wear Birkenstocks or home-school my children, but some of my friends do. Isn’t Rosner complaining about me?
Her depiction of back-to-the-landers, hippies, utopians, Birkenstock-wearers, and new-agers is in some ways irritatingly accurate. There has been a contingent of people who imagine rural life to be an idyll — who load all their belongings into a VW bus and drive off into the wilderness, planning to build a geodesic dome, commune with nature, eat a lot of soy products, and avoid disciplining their children.
Hippies aren’t the only ones with this idea. When I was managing a farm in Vermont, a young man who was preparing to enter a monastery came to work with us. He had decided first to try living in the country, where he could get closer to God. His image of country life was based mainly on Sunday-school images of shepherds; he thought he would find peace among the flocks. But he hadn’t counted on milking fifty goats and cows, shoveling shit, catching a hundred sheep to vaccinate them, nursing five calves with diarrhea, disposing of two calves that had died of the diarrhea, baling a field of hay, stuffing that hay into barns, baling another field, stuffing it into barns, and then milking the fifty cows and goats again. This was a typical summer day.
Country life is not idyllic. It involves enormous amounts of hard physical labor. It is isolating. It is often impossible to find a job. There are few social services. The educational systems are inadequate. So the would-be monk and most of the hippies end up back in the cities, close to the churches and the natural-food stores.
But despite Rosner’s distaste for such people, which I often share, I think she and the hippies are more alike than different in their conceptions of the country. Rosner implies that people who choose to live in a rural setting evade “the dire, critical issues that cause so much suffering today.” In fact, people who manage to carve out lives in the country face issues identical to those Rosner faces in Highland Park, New Jersey: abject poverty, neglect and abuse, environmental degradation, political chicanery, and so on.
Poverty in particular is a problem in rural areas. Central Maine, where I live, is dotted with collapsing trailers and shacks, garbage-filled yards, the rusted-out hulks of cars. Broken windows and roofs covered with tarps and plastic are common — this in a region with temperatures that reach forty below in the winter. Many people are illiterate or close to it. Jobs are hard to find, and the timber industry is the main employer, meaning the majority of people must rape the land they live on in order to feed their children.
The people I admire most here in the country have made tremendous contributions to humanity, the animal world, and the earth, but their achievements have not been trumpeted in the newspapers; in many cases, word of them hasn’t spread even beyond the limits of our town. One person works to improve the lives of the mentally retarded. Another owns a store and treats customers with dignity, helping a poor man buy a bottle of cough medicine for a sick child. Another has spent years learning to grow crops efficiently and productively without damaging the land. These people do address “the dire, critical issues” of today. And I know that Rosner, too, wrestles with those issues and searches for answers using the talents at her disposal.
The would-be monk was wrong: watching sheep is not restful. It’s dirty and sweaty and boring and dangerous. Nevertheless, one can find peace among the flocks. It lasts for a fraction of a second and vanishes as quickly as it came. But discovering that infinitesimal space may temper our self-indulgence, force us to look beyond ourselves, and push us to search for peace in unlikely places.