A Chat with Eli Pariser About Growing Up in Maine
Nearly every young person I know between the ages of, say, 8 and 20 takes it as a given of life that growing up means leaving Maine. For a while, at least. The occasion may be college, or the Army, or a great job in Massachusetts, or a cousin in Seattle. But whatever form it takes, it represents opportunity — a chance to join the real world, where exciting things are happening 24/7.
Maine kids are not naive, and they’re not disconnected. They know about the wider world from family vacations, school trips, semesters abroad, nonstop cable news, a steady diet of movies and magazines and TV. They’ve got Facebook friends all over, and real-world classmates from places far away. In a sense they’re already plugged into that bigger world. But it’s not the same as really going out there.
More to the point, it’s not the same as getting out of here -- out of this dinky place where they’ve always lived and where, these past few years, they’ve started to feel a little trapped.
These feelings are perfectly healthy. It’s good for teenagers to feel restless -- it’s a side-effect of their energy, their curiosity and their ambition. It’s what drives them to go out and do great things. Maybe they’ll come back to Maine someday; maybe they won’t. We just have to see how it all plays out.
Who knows? Maybe one morning, not many years from now, we’ll open the newspaper -- or click on a news site -- to learn that a kid from our tiny Maine town has just spent an evening at the White House.
As a matter of fact, we here in Lincolnville (pop. 2,042) had that experience just last week.
Our homeboy Eli Pariser, at the ripe age of 28, was among a group of progressive political leaders invited to the White House to meet the new president and First Lady. If you’ve followed his career, you’ll know that Eli, son of Emmanuel Pariser and Dora Lievow, made a dent in the universe several years ago when he took his net savvy and grass-roots genius to MoveOn.org, then a sleepy liberal by-water. The rest is history, and Eli -- after serving as the organization’s director — has recently moved on to become its board president. In a brief chat a couple of days after his White House visit, I asked him about growing up in Maine.
“The sense that we’re all in it together, that we’re all responsible for one another, becomes very real when you live in a small town,” he said. “You just know that if you pass somebody broken down on the side of the road, you’d better stop and help, because the next car may not be coming for a while. And it might be you someday needing help.”
He recalled his years at our K-8 village school. “When you know you’re going to be in a classroom with these same 13 kids year after year -- people from all different kinds of families, different social and economic backgrounds — you just have to figure out how to make friends. Or at least make peace.” He laughed. “I think there’s something there about coalition-building.”
In Maine, he said, “there’s a kind of old-fashioned New England skepticism about the fancy things in life -- material possessions, flashy cars, things like that. You grow up keeping your eye on what’s real, and you don’t let yourself get caught up in what’s trendy or what’s popular. And so you’re not impressed by somebody just on the basis of how much money they make or what position they hold in life. It’s a gift to know, as an adult, you can relate to people just as people, no matter who they are.”
As for leaving Maine and (possibly) coming back again, he reflected: “When you’re growing up, adults will say things like, ‘You won’t really appreciate Maine until you’ve lived someplace else.’ And it’s absolutely true. There are so many things we just take for granted. But then you live in a city somewhere and you realize, hey, I can’t just go out in the woods and be with nature. I can’t walk down to the beach with my friends and have a bonfire. I can’t go mountain-climbing or cross-country skiing. I can’t have people just dropping by all the time to say hello.”
Speaking for myself, I’m glad my kids have had those things. I’m sure they’ll remember — wherever their lives may take them.
Novelist Richard Grant lives in Lincolnville and is a contributing editor to Down East.