by Lena Serkin Mazel
Two weeks ago, I boarded a plane to my current home in Nashville, Tennessee. As I watched the frozen northeastern ground grow smaller and a flight attendant glance around before surreptitiously sniffing a perfume sample in the SkyMall magazine, I thought of my destination, and how it differs from where I’ve been. Moving to a new place has given me a chance to observe some qualities that I possess, qualities so ingrained in Vermont culture I have never given them a second thought. “You’re so down-to-earth,” people say, observing my minimal makeup and lack of forced smile. “You don’t mess around,” they continue, noting the absence of the words “bless her heart” in my everyday conversation. This, to me, seems ridiculous but also noteworthy. People, upon walking into the coffee shop where I work, have openly commented that I think differently than those around me, somehow separate from the cultural norms of the place, able to separate myself from the ingrained ideas forced on Americans by mass marketing and generations of assumption.
Was I born this way? Am I smarter than those around me? No, and definitely no. I have almost no part in these lucky qualities; I owe this questioning of authority, this thinking for myself, almost entirely to Vermont. As a child, I learned to pick myself up when I ran down acres of sloping green hills. I knew where my food came from; I knew how to find beauty behind the thick wall of superficiality. Vermont taught me how the systems that brought everything I had worked, not hypothetically, but physically, practically. I watched plants and animals grow; I saw them die. I had three channels of working television, then none. I worked physically, shoveling snow and scraping ice, pulling weeds and planting seeds. I watched the smoke of springtime through sugar shack roofs on the ride to my small school as a child. Most children do not have these blessings.
Culturally, I grew up surrounded by unashamed artists. Not people who created their art “on the side” or “dabbled,” the residents of Brattleboro unapologetically plunked themselves on the corner of Main Street and energetically filled the mountain air with guitar, banjo, or trumpet. Our resident poet came into the public school and wrote poetry with my third grade class as I groaned inwardly, suspicious of any writing activity or self-betterment. In sixth grade, my best friend and I practiced our grande allegro by leaping down Main Street from the Brattleboro School of Dance, cheered along by relative strangers. To live in a place known for the arts: this gives the bravery required for any creative endeavor.
Those same relative strangers who clapped for my euphoric childish downhill leaps taught me to look fear in the eye and never stand for injustice. Politically, Vermont makes a name for itself on an almost weekly basis for radically pushing against subtle social inequalities and exposing cultural lies. We aren’t blank-faced, nodding people. Perfectly perpetuating the mountain man stereotype, we stubbornly continue to think independently. Yet within this independence, we form bonds of strong human connection rarely found in the age of information, with the strength and simplicity of pulling another car out of the mud, walking through a blizzard with baby formula, locking doors against bears, or sharing warm maple sugar on snow in a church basement in the early springtime. The physical hardship leads to camaraderie between neighbors who depend on one another, not just for companionship, but also for survival. We form these bonds through crowded town meetings, or airy forest walks, speaking and listening.
Finally, Vermont gave me silence. To look up on a freezing night after getting out of the Subaru at my front door and see a sky full of stars, I can write. When the lazy blinking of fireflies becomes the only light for miles around and the crickets fill the still air, I can hear my own inner voice. I have found friendship of the pines in all seasons, hiking through the wide-open spaces and shelters of the woods that have remained vast even as I myself have grown. In the silence of Vermont, you can hear yourself perfectly, away from the din and cacophony of everyday life.