Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Tricia Pennypacker column

To: The Critic
Series: Moments Like This
Title: Cold in the Kingdom
Author: Tricia Pennypacker
Date: February 13, 2007

Cold in the Kingdom

It is the middle of February and the bone-chilling temperatures and short, dark days do nothing for my spirit. I do not ski. This is not because I do not want to, but because I never learned how, nor could I justify the expense. I enjoy ice-skating, but find the artificial air in the rink even more chilling than the air outside. Sadly, I must admit that I no longer enjoy New England winters. I bide my time from December, after my Norman Rockwell idea of a white Christmas either came true or didn’t, until the sap stops running in April, and the peep-frogs start their evening chorus. Until then, I spend much of my time beneath a thick, fleece blanket, sipping hot tea and catching up on the reading that I am too active for during the warmer months. Sometimes, in these dark hours, I contemplate why I am living in the Northeast Kingdom, a place where people quickly shut their doors against the cold, and seemingly, the world around them.

Growing up in the Northeast Kingdom, I was eager to leave my hometown for a fresh start in life. I traded my winter boots and heavy parka for a pair of Birkenstocks and cut off Levi’s, and the cold mountains for the warm, flat Floridian coastline. I entered an unfamiliar world where strangers stopped to help when I was stranded on the side of the road, and women in the grocery stores would befriend me instantly. The compassion and strength of the county surprised me.
On muggy evenings, front porches were full of chatter and laughter. People bustled through their week, sometimes working two or three jobs to support a family. They knew how to stretch a whole chicken to feed more than one family. Clothes were passed from one family to the next as children grew. There was never the sense of abundance there, but there was always enough. By the weekend the fish were frying, the drinks were cold and the tailgates were lowered as the entire town rallied together at the high school’s football game.
Although I loved this sense of belonging, I missed the mountains, the changing of the seasons, and even the snow. More than that, I missed the quaint farmhouses nestled in the valleys, the stoic maple trees and the crooked stone walls that dotted the countryside. Whether I like it or not, I am a northern country girl. I can immerse myself in a place and a culture as I did at sixteen when I spent a summer in Australia, or when I gained a broader perspective on American life as I spent months on the road traveling across the states with my family, but I cannot cut the heart strings that tug me back to Vermont, a place that both confuses and comforts me.
Having witnessed the struggle of the South, I was amazed that the people seemed to accept their life with good humor, as though their trials were inevitable. Here, struggles seem to make or break people. People either give up too easily, or they fail to take pride in overcoming the odds. Instead, I see a community that feeds off of the past, griping about ancient wounds as though they were fresh. I see Vermonters so stuck in their groove that they refuse to accept new people, new laws, and new ideas. They shut their doors to strangers and completely miss the benefit of merging ideas and traditions.
I wonder how a place with such beauty and promise can be so challenging. Everything here is a challenge. Depending on the season, the commute through snowy, icy, muddy, or rutty roads is a challenge. Finding affordable and enjoyable entertainment, in a diverse upper and lower class society can be a challenge. Trying not to jump on the band-wagon as people move away in search of higher paying jobs, and more affordable housing, is becoming a greater challenge.
I miss the hospitality of the South as I am confronted with my own isolation. I tell myself that I am too busy to strengthen friendships, and that maybe someday, if life slows down (which I know it never really does), I will have the energy to do all the things I long to do, and my friends will also have the time to spare. This is really just an excuse for not wanting to step outside of my warm home, and face the chill of the world, not wanting to confront the reality that we have become a close-minded society, each believing that our way of doing things is the only way to do them.
Ideally, I would love to see the Northeast Kingdom flourish with beauty, generosity, and compassion combined. I want to rid the notion that a cold environment breeds cold hearts. Maybe then the winters wouldn’t seem so endlessly cruel. Until then, I guess I need to toss my blanket aside and venture out into the crisp air, maybe start a few friendships along the way.

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