Tuesday, October 6, 2009

do we have to do this again?

Ah, it seems that we need to revisit the divide between Maine's urban and rural worlds.

People from away look at some of our cities - Portland, Bangor, Augusta, Lewiston/Auburn, Waterville/Winslow and see rural outposts of suburbia. What they don't know is that Portland is as urban as Maine gets. Our largest city has a mere 60,000 people. By comparison, when we lived in Minnesota, the Twin Cities suburb of Burnsville had 60,000 people, and it was but one of a dozen similar communities arranged around the larger metropolitan area.

We're a small town here in Maine. No, I did not say that Maine has a lot of small towns, although that is certainly true. I said Maine is a small town. A thing that happens in Portland in the morning is known from Kittery to Calais by suppertime. This is especially true in the glbt community here. We know each other's business. That is a double-edged sword at times, but it is largely true. If there is upheaval and distress in the queer community, we all know it and feel it as soon as it happens. If a prominent couple splits, well, let's just say that lots of people often know about it even before the two people involved.

So here we are with an influx of eager and talented volunteers and professional organizers from all over the country. They're pouring into Maine to work on the final push of the campaign, and they are as FIRED UP and READY TO GO as my little dog ever gets. Only they need a lesson in rural life before they begin, and not everybody is going to understand our world.

Telling voters in Sullivan or Medway or Phillips to "just go on line and request a ballot" is akin to telling them to hop in their helicopter and fly to France for lunch. These rural folk often don't have computers in their homes, never mind the high-speed Internet connection required to navigate the necessary websites. My local bank branch manager does not have a computer in her home. She's chained to the thing all day at work, and she'll be damned if she'll do that once she gets home. I get that.

Here in Maine, and particularly in rural Maine, we do things on a more personal, face-to-face level. We like to go to our local hardware store and ask a guy named Duffy or Pete about the problem under the sink or on the roof. We don't cotton much to on-line DIY stuff. We want someone to talk to, someone to ask questions of, someone to grab by the shirtfront and shake vigorously if necessary, to make a point. We shake hands and it means something. We know where each other lives and what kind of vehicles each other drives, and if we see someone broken down beside the road, we stop and don't just offer a ride, but we get out our tools and fix the flat or try to tinker with the engine. This is how we do things.

I recently recommended to one newcomer that she read "The Beans of Egypt, Maine" by Carolyn Chute and that she watch the Stephen King movie "Delores Claiborne" starring Cathy Bates. Those two stories I think illustrate the world where I live better than any other thing that I have seen in popular culture. The characters and places in those stories are true to our world. Laura and I fish for trout in Egypt, Maine. It's not far from Ellsworth, and there are places there that look like any photograph of Appalachia I ever saw in a college sociology text.

Laura and I sometimes discuss the fact that her mother and stepfather don't vote. Never have. Don't have any plans to start. They view the whole political process as so much elitist bullshit, and that the politicians in charge of things will do what they want no matter how people vote or which of the scoundrels gets elected.

They want to come to our wedding, which makes my teeth itch. I'd love to require that nobody can attend who was eligible to vote but did not. This thing is so important to us, I cannot describe it. The idea that her MOTHER would not register and vote to cast one more mark in our column utterly confounds me. But I cannot change her. She is a product of her community and her environment. Neither of her parents ever voted, either, and her stepfather cannot read or count much higher than is required to play cribbage.

This is the part of the world where education and opportunity are in short supply. People here run from their desperation through alcohol and drugs. They buy lottery tickets at a rate higher than any other counties in Maine. It's a good thing you can't buy a bus ticket out of town with food stamps, or there'd be nobody left. No shit. That's a lot of what this area is like. Jobs are few and far between. There is no wifi for executives to telecommute from their retreat cottage.

This is rural Maine. I attended a house party this evening at a working farm. The hostess served home made corn muffins that I watched her mix and bake (four dozen, by the way). There was a big salad, some organic chips made from corn and dulce, a kind of seaweed, and salsa made from vegetables grown in the garden, and there were two kinds of chili, a vegetarian one and one made with moose meat. For the record, the moose meat chili was more popular. And she sent me home with a small tub of the stuff for Laura, who was most grateful.

That's how we roll here. Moose meat chili at a house party and a basket of feather-and-manure-speckled eggs on the counter. And nobody blinks. There was some chatter at the party of a recent potluck gathering that involved the slaughter and gutting of chickens. Everybody got to bring a half-dozen birds home to put in the freezer, so it worked out.

I love Maine. I love rural Maine.

I love Portland, too, but for different reasons.

I just get frustrated when people who don't know how we live try to show us new and improved ways to be. If I wanted a Starbucks nearby, I'd live in a city. I prefer the moose meat chili and eggs that need to be washed before you can cook them.

So please, all you well-meaning people from away? Listen when we tell you what will work in our communities and what won't. Not everybody here has the Internet. Not everybody has a cell phone. Not everybody has cable television. Hell, I know people who don't OWN a TV. I know people who don't have a phone. Or indoor plumbing. When we tell you that "go to the website" won't work for our voters, trust us, hmm?

On the other hand, don't look at the ramshackle farmhouses and run-down trailers and assume that we are all the mouth-breathing, knuckle-dragging products of years of marrying our cousins. There are some very smart and very capable people here. Yes, there are some from the shallow end of the gene pool, but there are those of us who can write a complete sentence, who are unafraid to creatively split infinitives and defend a run-on sentence as a matter of artistic expression. And who resent it mightily when we feel looked down upon.

Our world is not "quaint" thank you. It is hard work most days. But we value the natural beauty of the place we live and the freedoms we enjoy here enough to work as hard as we do to stay. We don't need or want a Starbucks, a CVS, or a Dunkin' Donuts on every corner. We love our rural world and our rural way of life, even if it is beyond what many can understand. Just respect that please, and don't try to treat us like urban voters or dim-witted fools, ok?



MRMacrum said...

Nicely written. But you may as well be spittin into the wind. Folks from away will always assume we are dimwits. I say let them. It makes it easier to have fun at their expense.

"Beans" is one of my favorite short novels. Maybe because several of the characters seem to live down the road from me. I have run into Carolyn Chute several times over the years and every time I am impressed with how real and forthright she is.

Anonymous said...

This is often the complaint of people from regions of the world where well-meaning folks (e.g., Peace Corps) go to "improve" the lives of the inhabitants. It's great that people want to help, but first they need a clue on the culture.


Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

Hey, Dawn. Great job on WERU this morning!

louise said...

Damn, woman, you can write like nobody's business. This is so effing spot-on it's frightening...

Marie said...

You are such a good writer, as always. My blog got deleted by GoDaddy through a series of errors (sob), but I linked this post via my Twitter account. I used to live in Dexter, so I know what you're talking about.

I'm following Paul Hogarth on Twitter and when he said he was traveling thru N. Maine, I was thinking, "Good luck, man." Not that I think everyone would vote yes on 1, but yeah, getting people to go vote and/or on the internet. My dad grew up in Aroostook County and has a PhD. in Education, yet he STILL doesn't use a computer. Because he's retired. He lives in another state now, but I imagine getting him out to vote for anything other than a presidential election would be impossible.

Really great post and insight, Dawn.

P.S. I still have my lard for crusts! Does it go bad?

Larry L said...

yeah Dawn, I'm missing Maine...and tell Duffy we say hi. He's my Uncle-in-Law (Trevor's father's brother). hugs and my fingers are crossed from afar.