Down East 2013 ©
The collapse of mighty institutions all around us — big corporations, the State of California, and now perhaps the Grand Old Party — might be even more alarming were we not watching from the relative tranquility of a place where things are basically okay.
Now I don't claim that Maine is perfect. It probably doesn't qualify as the Last Good Place — though I must say it looked very much like that to me twenty-one years ago, which is why I've stayed. But it is a good place, a decent and civilized place, where the complex wheels of social interaction — neighborhoods, town committees, schools and churches, local papers, community suppers and concerts, PTA bake sales, worthy fundraisers, gatherings of like-minded friends — seem to be oiled and grinding away without undue friction.
We have our social ills. Many of our schools are under-funded, some severely so. There are drugs in the hallways. There are (I assume) meth labs in the woods, and caches of firearms, and angry people who think the Anti-Christ is sitting in the White House. Our police blotters are enlivened with crimes of amazing stupidity. Old people struggle to keep their homes warm in winter. Girls get pregnant in their mid-teens. Last week some boys dropped a block of ice off a highway overpass, almost killing an innocent driver.
Which is to say that Maine has not found a magic hatch to escape from, or lock out, the whole messy human condition. But we have done something almost as remarkable, given the prevailing national climate: We have set ourselves to deal with these things as adults, plugging away doggedly with whatever tools lie to hand, rather than indulge in a frenzy of finger-pointing and slogan-chanting and nonstop tweeting. Mainers remain willing to engage with people outside their circle of friends on Facebook.
Our state budget crisis provides a (rather gloomy) case in point. There appears to be no end to the rising tide of red ink. But rather than allowing ourselves to be swamped, writing off our way of life as lost, our elected reps and appointed civil servants in Augusta have been struggling honorably to preserve the social safety net, to keep our fragile environment intact and our colleges up and running, to maintain a fair semblance of civility and competence in our halls of government. (And even to uphold sartorial standards: My young Rep. Andrew O'Brien was reprimanded on the floor of the House for showing up for work in a flannel shirt and no tie. "Ooooo!" said the assembled legislators. You don't get this kind of thing, I imagine, in New Jersey.)
I would point also to last year's debate over marriage equality. Though it turned out a little bit heartbreaking for some of us, it also proved gratifying in many ways. It allowed us to turn our attention to the things we have in common, or hope to: love and families and lifelong homes. There was nothing like the bitterness and rage surrounding Prop 8 in California. Indeed the outpouring of support was remarkable, even if it fell short of the magic number of 50.1 percent. Seldom have so many Mainers done so much to defend the rights of so few. Old habits of thought are just hard to shake, I guess.
As a working proposition, I would submit that Maine works better than other places because we continue to think small. We regard those people down the road as neighbors, not as a hostile presence in our midst. We are willing when needed to lend them a hand. (I got dragged out of a snowbank a couple of winters ago by the same local character who likes to decorate his driveway with signs proclaiming the right-wing talking points du jour.)
This attitude extends right across the state, bridging the urban-rural divide, the generation gap, the economic fault-line between the coast and the interior, and all the other things that threaten to separate us, but strangely don't. We may be no nicer or smarter or more enlightened than anybody else, but we have this habit of thinking in village-scale terms. And within the confines of a village — even a complicated one like the UMO campus, or the West End of Portland — it's hard for anyone to get altogether lost. When bad things happen we feel them personally.
Maine has changed quite a bit in the couple of decades I've lived here. But in this one important respect it has not. Which is a comforting thing, when you stop to think about it.