Monday, November 21, 2005

The Real World

Come the day after Thanksgiving, I will have been in Vermont for three years, having arrived lumbered with too many possessions, unpropitiously in an early, wet misery of a snowstorm. In the early morning hours, as the movers pulled the van away to head back to civizilation, they made it clear that they thought I was misguided at best. And looking around three small rooms packed with stuff, thinking neither for the first time nor the last that I could die in the Vermont cold, I wasn’t sure they were wrong.

Still I am a good decision-maker, which mostly means that I know when it is time to go to sleep and think about it in the morning. When morning came, it was all white wonder, and I was in love with Vermont on sight.

Please note that I do not like being cold, not at all, so what am I doing in this place that requires a minimum of a sweater all year round? I don’t know. But here I am, and I do love Vermont in all its quirkiness.

Along with the cold, another of Vermont’s less appealing characteristics is its business climate and its economy. Wages are low, and despite the prevailing wisdom that our cost of living is low, we feel the pinch when we pay for housing, gasoline, electricity, and—most of all—heat. It is a pretty place, a safe place, and a haven for recreation (particularly for those who don’t mind falling down in cold, wet snow), but it is not an easy place to make a living.

In my job, I have had several occasions to talk to people who want to move to Vermont, people whose expectations have been formed “away” from here, people who have the perception that there are lots of companies here offering lots of well-structured, good-paying, benefits-laden jobs. “I don’t need a lot,” they say, hoping to jog my memory of several networking options to put on the table, “I only need to make about $60,000 and have healthcare, maybe a little contribution to my retirement.”

Don’t we all?

At any given time in greater New York, in Connecticut, in Boston, in Atlanta that job is readily available. It may take a little time to find the congenial workplace, the requirements that match one’s skill set, but the person looking to simplify life can find opportunities that fit with a new life agenda. In Vermont, it takes longer and requires more luck, more networking, and fitting in to the local community. Vermonters can sniff a phony from miles away, and by the time you walk up to “network” with them, they have vanished into the woods. You have to learn the local language—not so much dialect as rules of engagement—and we outsiders mostly learn by getting it wrong.

I am enjoying living here (beauty trumps cold) and working here (integrity and commitment of my colleagues means a lot), and I have adjusted my lifestyle to fit social norm and reduced income stream. I am fortunate that I am able to do that; honestly I don’t know how some of my friends and neighbors manage. Even so, there are times when the budget pinches, and I remember how much fun it was to have more play money even if I would not return to the associated jobs or cities.

It has been a long time since I made a trip south to visit family, not since I moved here have I done that. Chatting with a Vermont friend who visited Denver recently, I could see in her face a mixture of horror and fascination as she recalled its sprawling roads and malls. That explosion of development is more the norm in America, but is startling to people accustomed to two lane state highways, some of them unpaved, a few that close for the winter.

Television ads already remind me that I will be visiting the real world during the most crazed part of the retail season. I’m hoping I won’t be overwhelmed by this jaunt to America, this excursion into four and six and eight lanes of traffic, this dousing in commercialism. I am hoping my small town self will remember my big city self, when I knew that having money to play with was not a moral failure, nor does my self-selected simple life represent the high ground. I’m hoping I remember that however much fun it is to visit the free-spending commercial world out there in America, it is my ability to stick to my real world budget that allows me to keep choosing this peaceful home in Vermont.

1 comment:

Jola said...

Oh what a paradise it seems. Except that Vermont's not immune to sprawl and Walmartization (see, for example, http://www.nationaltrust.org/news/docs/20040524_11most_vermont.html). "America" isn't someplace out there, beyond the state borders. And for a dose of commercialism you need go no further than Manchester.

Vermont has a very high poverty rate. Because the "simple life" is simple to achieve only with some money and/or solid assets, as well as strong self-discipline.

All that said, I am glad for you that you have found yourself in a nice quiet pocket and are able to manage so well. Which is what DH and I have managed for ourselves as well - though there's a Walmart not far from us. At least it's not a SuperWalmart. Yet.