It never failed. Driving north on Interstate 91 in Massachusetts, as traffic thinned beyond Springfield, the air began to smell country clean, my shoulders relaxed and came unglued from my ears, I breathed deeply, all the toxicity of the place I had fled (Washington, DC) dripping off me with the cleansing sensation of water running down my back when I wash my hair.
Arriving at the writer’s retreat in Dorset, Vermont one winter I penned these words: “The sun is bold this December day. … The air is pure. Life is good. There is peace in this valley.”
Four years later having finished a memoir written at various Vermont locations, I moved to my now adopted state. It is a tranquil place of green mountains and good people, who received me gracefully, excited about what I brought to the community. Never once did I feel rejected as so much competition like I had in my former home town. No one here cared if I was organizationally affiliated and could offer favors. No one asked for my contact lists or called to say, “I want to pick your brain.” I was just me and my energy and experience were embraced. The welcome made me cry like a newborn.
There was little of this warmth where I came from. While Vermont received me with open arms, Washington, my home for thirty years, made me feel ill, not because it is environmentally polluted but because it so easily pollutes a soul and kills a spirit, especially if you’re not power-tripping. Washington is a place of who do you know and what can you do for me whereas in Vermont the question is what can you share with us? (It’s always pot luck dinner here.)
I’ve written prolifically since moving to Vermont. The loneliness that choked me like cudzu wrapping itself around my heart in the final DC years lifted as soon as I got here. The blood that had slugged through my veins as though my very essence were occluded opened up and coursed through my re-vitalized body. My voice returned. It began to sing.
The power of place is an amazing thing.
In the Vermont village where I live, there is a sign in someone’s yard that says "Experience Deceleration." I thought it was funny at first but now, as they say in New England, I think it's a "wicked good" sign.
My lifestyle has changed completely since moving here. To an outsider, it might look as though the transition was easy. It wasn't. For years, I had struggled with my personal and professional identity in a town where identity is everything. I had fantasized about where to go and what to do once my husband retired from a career solidly grounded in the nation’s capital. I agonized over feeling marginal as a feminist and a truth-teller. I mourned the loss of my professional persona when my career floundered because I wanted to write. I thought about what I would do without meetings and conferences at which to see and be seen if we left the metropolis. I traveled like a maniac on free airline points. I went to women writers conferences. And all the while I held onto the need to reinvent myself.
When my first book was published in 1991, while we still lived in DC, I knew I was a writer. That meant carving out time for my craft and reconciling some things: I had to come to grips with the fact that I was never going to be on Gloria Steinem's Rolodex despite my years in the women=s movement. Bella Abzug was not going to ask for my help. This realization caused me to reflect on my career, and my life C which began for me when I moved to New York in 1963 at the age of twenty.
This reference is important because the sixties were a volatile time, and people in their twenties were dropping out like proverbial flies. Not me. I did the establishment thing: I became a secretary. Despite intense compassion, I was not a civil rights activist; I did not engage in fierce debates about the Vietnam War. I simply enjoyed my freedom.
It was interesting to reflect upon this stage of my life as I bemoaned the fact that Gloria wasn't waiting for my call-back. I realized that for the first time in my life I was unaffiliated, on my own. For the first time since I became a card-carrying feminist and finished my first college degree, I was not extremely involved,no longer an organizational maven in charge of something important.
At first it seemed deliciously daring to defy convention. My work was getting published sufficiently to make me feel like a serious writer. But gradually, feminist markets I'd written for failed, liberal publications found my work too conservative while conservative publications found it too liberal, and Anna Quindlen had gotten to The New York Times first. The only message I got from an agent was, And when you're ready to do something commercial, call me.
About this time, my fifties snuck up on me, and I became curiously disinterested in power, politics, and polemics. I was de-investing, getting lazy. I didn't feel driven, striving had subsided, bureaucracy no longer beckoned. I began to feel like I=d been there before. There was a weird deja vu-all-over-again quality to events; my life seemed to keep repeating itself. I longed for something original to occur, for some AHA! Experience.
Then I saw the upside. It was great not to be crazed with the quest for achievement. I liked that slowly, I was learning laid-back living. Spending a day writing was heavenly. I was reminded of my freedom every time a friend said, "I'd give anything to be doing that!"
"Why did you choose Vermont?" people still ask me.
"In a word, Vermont," I say. Then I wax eloquent about friendly people, progressive politics, community life, egalitarianism, and the charm of the place. "I have always wanted to live where you had to 'beware of moose''" I tell them.
But the real reason is this: Here I can think. I can be. I can write. And when I write, I am. Here, life is real, and therefore I am real. I exist. I am not an image trying to fit into a larger mirage. What I have to say is valued, and when it is poetically put, it is appreciated. Here, amidst writers and artists, carpenters and house painters, teachers and laborers, antique dealers and doctors, women who play in the snow with their children and seniors who ski, I am at home. I am comfortable so I can speak comfortably. I find my voice. And when I watch the mist rising off our pond in the early light of day like steam floating up from a morning cup of tea, or listen to the rustle of leaves from the woods behind like a little symphony of trumpeting twigs and wind instruments, or drive a country lane in the periwinkle glow of dusk, that voice is legitimate and clear. When it wants to speak, there are people who wish to listen. When it sings, it is heard. When it mourns, it is comforted. When it jokes, there is laughter. When it is silent, there is safety.
That is why I am in Vermont as I begin the third stage of my journey, having voyaged from maiden to mother to crone. Finally, and at last, I have jettisoned the detritus of expectation, the weight of achievement, the pain of betrayal, the burden of competition, the falseness of pretense, the danger of boredom, the blinding city lights. In their place I welcome the genuine goodness of my neighbors, the beauty of the landscape, the gentleness of the muse, calling.
I do, indeed, experience deceleration, and it is wicked good.