Saturday, June 25, 2005


Life in the city is easy. If you need something done, there are phalanxes of service providers clamoring for your money. And all it really takes is money, maybe a little oversight of the project, and quick like a rabbit your world is back in order.

Living alone in the country is different. Any illusion of self-reliance vanishes with the first big snowfall or the first downed tree limb. Here in rural America, we need each other, and we know it.

Musing today, my friend wasn’t entirely sure what makes her so grumpy with in-migrants, but she thinks it might be the lack of understanding of basic country courtesies, particularly of reciprocity. Of all the people that her husband had plowed out, of all the bundles of wood delivered as welcome presents, of all the gifts of time and heavy equipment, too few have been recognized as worthy of gratitude, far fewer of reciprocity. One returned brownies for firewood, and is held up as model of the rare in-comer who gets it. Vermonters are not happy, witless folk looking for opportunities to show off their tractors; rather they are over-obligated hard-working people who nevertheless make the time for those in need of help, however hapless the appeal. And however ungrateful the response.

It is reciprocity that is the name of the game here where winter really can kill and where people have lived in such close relation for so many years that they have come at last to recognize that different persons harbor different gifts.

I shared with my friend the technique I use here. In comparison to these people who have all manner of knowledge of the practicalities of country life, I know nothing. I have skills to offer, certainly, but it seems skimpy to offer an apple pie or a computer spreadsheet in exchange for the gifts I have received. And so, when I ask for and receive the gift of help hauling old carpet to the dump or even last minute dogsitting, I am wary that I need to reciprocate. Often I try to pay, and I have found the following phrase sometimes cuts through shyness and pride: “Hon, I really have to pay you. You know I can’t afford what you are worth, but if I can’t pay you something then I can never ask you again for a favor.” Pride meets pride, we agree to set it aside, and we are human together.

It is a humble thing to need to ask for help. I have good friends here, not people who invite me to dinner parties and chatter about the latest latest, but people to whom I can turn when a tree limb falls to ask who do I call? People who help without hesitation or question when I appear in tears over some small or not so small threat to my tiny treasure of a world.

Miracles have occurred in my life over the past few days. A confrontation that left me in tears was met by good friends who said, don’t worry…if we have to, we can build you a fence in a day or so. Ignoring the in-laws in the hospital, the daily demands of a small business. Here, they said, is what you do. But don’t worry.

I’m sorry, from another friend, the one who meant to build my fence sooner. Working for pay, his time is fractured in this halcyon season, but in hours he was in my yard full of apologies and re-engineered schedules. I thought I was waiting for you, but don’t worry. We can make it happen. Whatever happens, don’t worry.

Don’t worry, said my musing friend. It won’t be today or even this week, but we can bring the chain saw and take care of that tree that fell in your yard. Sure, you could call someone, but they will charge you, and we will take care of you. Because you belong here.

Did you want help with that? Another friend, my neighbor. Could you use the wood, I ask, or could I pay you? Definitively no. You kept our dog a really long time. I had forgotten the dog that came with my house, the dog who stayed on for a few months after we came to take over her family's former home. I had forgotten that I had reciprocity banked.

I am rich indeed.


zhoen said...

When we moved out from Salt Lake to Boston at shorter notice than expected and the mover failed to show, our friends got our stuff out of our apartment, onto a truck and out to us. No mean feat. One of them has come out to visit for a week (a perfect guest) another got our (useless in Boston) car, the last has yet to collect, but whatever he wants, no sweat.

More critical in rural areas, but not only there is it found.

Amy said...

I like this. This would be nice as a guest commentary in your local paper.