Sunday Morning~ Bar Harbor
October 29, 2017
I know for sure that this island is home. I will leave here today and be gone for the next year, but this is my permanent address. I felt the clarity as I drove across the Trenton Bridge.
When my kids were little and we were living in Connecticut we started thinking about where we would settle for our happily ever after. Joe was in graduate school, I was working in a busy practice in New Haven (a temporary haven). I value my experience there and am grateful for the friends I made, but we knew we didn’t want to raise our kids in that frenetic environment. I had to cross four lanes of traffic for my exit to the Madison office! I wasn’t doing that forever.
We were good at talking about our dreams and making big plans for life. We mapped it out in ten year blocks. After we married and spent a two month honeymoon biking around Europe, we joined the Peace Corps. We had our children young and incorporated them into the adventure. They were portable, we reasoned. We were living fist to mouth for many years and during the years in Connecticut our date-nights consisted of putting the kids to bed and making ourselves a nice meal to eat in peace. On one of those evenings we talked about the second ten-year plan. We’d had our family, we were finishing graduate school and had the potential for satisfying careers. We had no savings and didn’t know where we wanted to settle down, but we were sure it was somewhere in New England. We’d tested out the midwest, we’d traveled through Europe and Africa, we’d spent time out west, and nothing felt as right as the north east. So we started there. We went through each New England state and talked about it’s pros and cons; I wanted mountains, Joe wanted ocean. I’d always wanted to live in Vermont. I loved to ski and had a fantasy of living on a farm. We wanted good schools and a sense of community. The only thing missing was the ocean. So Maine was an obvious choice. It had George Mitchell, a National Park, mountains, ocean, skiing, and farms. We decided to spent the following year exploring, hoping to find the perfect spot to sprout some roots.
My salary at that time was so pathetic that three weeks of my pay went to rent and the babysitter. Food, gas, and utilities consumed the fourth week. I started taking on sewing jobs to make extra money and most evenings after we got the kids to bed I’d pull out the sewing machine and set up the ironing board in the kitchen. Joe called it the sweat shop. He’d help sometimes, pressing seams as I sewed. One weekend each month we went to Maine.
We started in the south, working our way north along the coast seeing what the communities looked and felt like. Sometimes we brought the kids, sometimes we left them with my mother (bless her soul). We’d go to the library, look at houses, get a beer in the local bar. It was like a research project we conducted over the span of a year. It’s funny, we never once looked at jobs. We didn’t want the job to determine where we lived. We wanted to choose a community we liked and figured we’d find jobs there. I didn’t want to have the kind of life where I was always looking forward to a vacation in order to be where I wanted to be. I wanted to live where I wanted to be. For several months we ruled out coastal communities for one reason or another: too touristy, schools aren’t what we want, too far to commute to a hospital, etc. As we got further north we had to plan more than a weekend since the drive took almost a whole day. We planned a week for Mount Desert Island and made reservations to stay in the National Park. It was a seven hour drive here from our home in Connecticut and that was without stopping. We packed up the van with camping gear, food, and kids and drove north. We had our old-fashioned map, made out of paper, well-loved, and dog eared. I had it on my lap as we crossed the Trenton Bridge. Before we’d arrived on the opposite side, I said, “Oh wow. This feels good. I feel like I coming home.” It wasn’t just the spectacular scenery––we’d seen lots of that, it was an energy I’d never felt before. We didn’t even have to discuss it anymore after that week. We knew this is where we wanted to live. We spent the following year looking for a piece of land to build on. The sweat shop went into overtime and we saved enough money to buy three acres in the woods on a new road.
It was a few more years before we actually lived on that land. We went abroad again for two years. We knew living in Maine the kids would be living in a racially homogeneous community. We wanted them to experience diversity and understand what it’s like to be a minority. We lived in American Samoa for two years where they went to a local school, the only palangis. There they certainly learned what it was like to be an outsider, and we sometimes worried they were being traumatized. As adults, they’ve got various takes on that experience, but at the time our reasoning was sound. We were able to save enough money there to return to Maine and build a small house. We lived in a tent on the land and all seven of us worked on that place. At six years old, the twins were mostly running around picking up dropped nails in a bucket, but they did their part! We lived in that little house while we built the bigger one, and my heart and soul is still there.
It’s been thirty years of living and working in this community and reaping all the benefits it has offered. The music teachers, the athletic coaches, the museum, the research lab, all played huge roles in forming the people my kids have become. I had a spare hour this week while waiting for the mail and had time to hike Acadia Mountain. I thought, where else can you do that? Hike a mountain when you’ve got a spare hour? There was a time after Joe left that I thought, “What am I doing here? I wanted to live in Vermont!” I took my bike and went to Vermont for a week, riding around and seeing if the place felt as much like home to me. It wasn’t exactly a fair trial since I was heartbroken and insane. Nothing felt good at that time. And when I drove back onto the island I got that same sense of peace and belonging. That it’s hours from a major airport the only downside here.
I had breakfast this week with my friend Ann. We walked in the rain over to Morning Glory, the sweet local bakery in an old house in town. We ordered our food, took our coffee and sat at one of the small tables. Ann was one of the women who started the Women’s Health Center, and we’d spent hours together drawing up forms for health histories, fundraising, commiserating, celebrating, and doing a really good job of taking care of women. It was grassroots health care at the time and we were proud of what we created. We talked about how hard it was to see what was becoming of all that work. Our health system seems to be crumbling. I told her about my plans for the next year. I told her I was looking forward to going back to Malawi next week, to working on the projects I care about there, and the travel we plan when we finish next June. But I told her I knew for sure I’d be back, that this was home. I told her about the feeling I had when I drove across the bridge. She said, “I know, right? It’s like that feeling you get when you crawl into your warm bed at night. Ah, I’m safe.” I laughed and said, “Exactly! That’s exactly the feeling!”
I thought of that feeling of safety. In my travels over the past month I’ve thought about how it feels to be alone in a strange place, especially as a woman. It’s something I’ve taken for granted, that I have to be extra careful as a woman traveling alone. And then I think, why should that be? Why should I be at particular risk just because of my gender? Why have I accepted this?
So I’m grateful for this clarity. I know where I feel safe. I’ve got a little more insight into work I need to focus on for gender equality and fairness. I’ve been blessed by the invitations I’ve had to present my experiences and energized by people’s reactions. I leave here today to head south for a few more talks and time with the kids, grandkids, and old friends. I’ll collect my car in New York, drive it back to Littleton, then Wednesday board a plane headed back to Malawi. The violence has subsided so I’m hoping I’ll be back in Blantyre by the end of the week. Three months flew! This will be my last post for awhile with reliable internet!
Love to all,