Building a Common Life
“There are moments when the heart is generous, and then it knows that for better or worse our lives are woven together here, one with one another and with the place and all the living things.”
—Wendell Berry, in Jayber Crow
Last fall, our weekly small-town newspaper had two stories I loved. One was a thank you note from the Animal Control Officer to several residents for rescuing a herd of five ponies and one goat. Apparently the goat figured out how to unlock the barn gate and liberated everyone while the owners were away. The ponies and goat were trotting down the road towards Dunkin’ Donuts and who knows where else. Neighbors gathered, recognized, and identified the runaways, and got everyone safely back to their barn. The second story was a plea from a reporter asking the person who had stolen a styrofoam gravestone to please return it to its rightful owner with no questions asked. The gravestone’s creator sets up a free haunted house for the neighborhood kids every Halloween. We were all encouraged to keep an eye out for the missing gravestone, “which at four feet tall should be hard to hide.” The next week we got the reassuring news the gravestone had been returned.
This is small town life at its best. Drivers stop to let you in because if you cut someone off, you’ll see them later at the post office. At the dump, people set out their useful junk on a concrete wall so you can get rid of your own trash and come home with someone else’s. We use Town Meetings as our form of governance which means sitting in the middle school auditorium and voting on important things, like whether we can afford a new Senior Center, by raising our hands. There are no secret ballots, relatively few secrets at all, and for almost 400 years people have managed to live together here, despite fierce disagreements.
But these are not the best of times. Around the same time as the runaway goat and missing gravestone, our elected town leaders proposed putting up stones at all the town entrances engraved with the words “All Are Welcome” and it quickly turned horrible. The welcome stones uncovered ugly things — mistrust, fear, racism, homophobia — barely buried beneath the surface of this rocky, New England soil. Words like “illegals” and “criminal elements” were spoken. There were warnings about “busloads of pedophiles and rapists” who would arrive once the stones went up. The church I serve was accused of promoting a pro-gay, pro-immigrant agenda, which I was proud to confirm.
When it came time to take the vote, after weeks of bitter argument and contempt on all sides, I had to force myself to keep my eyes open. I didn’t want to see who voted no, but I knew I needed to look, to see my neighbors’ faces in a moment which felt like a referendum on our community’s heart.
The vote to keep the welcome stones passed by a solid margin, for which I am grateful, but it was a painful time. Still, I choose to believe in community. I choose to believe in the difficult, slow work of building a common life. I believe in the strength and goodness of neighbors living side by side, finding each other’s lost goats and gravestones, even when we do not agree about things that matter deeply.
The welcome stones have been put into place now. The best hopes of those of us who wanted them have not come to pass and neither have the worst fears of those who did not. Time will inevitably soften their edges. I pray we will become more able to live into the welcome they proclaim. In the meantime, we are still here, our lives interwoven in this place we call home.
Spirit of Life, give us generous hearts. Keep us from contempt for those with whom we fiercely disagree and help us to learn the way of love for all of our neighbors.