Moving to the Hinterland

The car stereo shorted out repeatedly during our move to the country, defaulting from quiet public radio to a station transmitting evangelical hellfire at top volume.

I guess that was the first sign.

Though my husband, Mark, and I had long dreamed of raising our children in the country, we’d come to love the benefits of our busy suburban community. Along with a group of neighbors we’d established traditions including full moon walks, bike parades, Halloween get-togethers, even pig pen parties. But difficult circumstances — everything from a bully next door to a gun-toting gang  harassing our oldest son at school —  motivated us to leave. And because Mark had a home business without a commute, we were free to move farther away.

We scrounged the means to buy a rural place and found one we could afford.  As we carried our belongings into our new home we savored the pastoral refuge we’d found – a pond, fields, forest, and a low hill where we envisioned building a barn. We couldn’t wait to meet the neighbors.

The next day one of them walked over carrying a towel-covered dish. I’d always greeted new people on our old street with homemade bread so I was heartened to see her.

“This is my husband’s favorite,” she said. “It’s cherry pie.”

Her hair was sprayed into stiff curls, her face thick with make-up. Her expression seemed deeply unhappy. Three silent girls accompanied her. None of them wanted to meet my children when I offered to call them in from the woods. She stayed only long enough to ask if I’d found a nearby house of worship. I said we were still attending our former church. She asked its denomination, twice. I realized it was better to change the subject than tell her we attended a Unitarian Universalist fellowship.

On the way out her youngest child noticed a painting from India on our wall. The girl looked at me and spoke for the first time since she’d arrived. “Pagan idols!” she said in horror.

A few days later another neighbor walked over. She brought cookies and promptly asked about our church affiliation. While her toddler rampaged through the house she suggested we remove the sign on our lawn promoting the library levy. “No one around here supports the library,” she said softly. “It’s an agent of Satan.”

I was confused.

She explained that the library had “that Internet thing,” exposing children to “evil and filth on the screen.” I nodded at her concerns but gave examples of greater good brought about by the net. Words like “awareness” caused her nostrils to flare. She informed me that worldwide violence was a preordained sign of the End Times. Just then her tiny child ran into the room, assumed a firing stance and yelled, “I kill you.”

As this first month in our bucolic country home continued, more neighbors stopped by, usually in an advisory capacity. A minivan pulled in while I was putting up our Halloween decorations. The driver cautioned me that such décor would mark me as a devil worshiper.

“It’s not worth the effort anyway,” she said, “no one trick or treats around here.”

We commiserated about the reduction of household chocolate this represented. She leaned an elbow out the van window and went on about the holiday boycott. As we laughed I experienced a surge of hope, thinking I might have found a kindred spirit. She said there was a movement underway to halt even the October 31 “harvest parties” at school to which children wore costumes. I let out an ill-advised laugh and said something sarcastic. The relaxed expression on her face changed. She retorted that her pastor did not support anything which pleased “the desires of the devil and his minions” and backed out of the drive.

A brief conversation with neighbor who lived a few doors down revealed that our families had attended the same Presbyterian church when we were growing up. She invited me over. This seemed promising. When I brought muffins she nodded as she took them, saying that God had told her not to bake. As she ranged around the kitchen smacking insects with a fly swatter, she gave me a who’s who of the area.

“Don’t talk to the lady in the yellow house, she has a hyphenated name, probably a feminist. And next door, they’re Catholic, you know, so-called Christians.” She went on to list those in her own family who were going to hell because they were still Presbyterians rather than members of her non-denominational church. Finally she noticed I had gently protested each of her denunciations. The fly swatter stopped. I tried again.

“Aren’t Christians meant to see Christ in each person?” I asked gently.

She kicked me out of her house.

We’ve been here nine years now. We cherish the simple pleasures of raising cows, chickens, and bees on our land. And yes, we’ve found friends nearby with whom we can discuss politics and religion openly (even though our views don’t necessarily align). We’ve developed new traditions including potlucks to which we invite friends from urban and farm community together.

All the while our most fundamentalist neighbors have served as amazing teachers. They’ve truly given us lessons on finding that spark of divinity in everyone.

But sometimes I have to admit to myself, “Christ, good disguise.”

 

Originally published a decade ago by Geez Magazine: Contemplative Cultural Resistance. Our early months living in this community were actually much more harrowing as well as more strangely amusing. Here’s more on that. We’re still here on the same little farm and can truly say we appreciate all of our neighbors. (I don’t ask if the feeling is mutual…)  

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23 thoughts on “Moving to the Hinterland

  1. One of the human race’s least attractive attributes: blind bigotry, roughly equivalent to sticking your fingers in your ears and going “lalalalala” if you hear something that doesn’t conform to your own beliefs. I am fortunate to live in one of the most easy-going countries on earth 🙂

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  2. Yes, it is so interesting, and even counterintuitive, how when I judge someone as in or out of my religion, tribe, etc. it immediately puts up a wall between me and the other, preventing us from having any sort of compassionate, meaningful, connecting or empathetic dialogue. What a challenge it is to approach someone who is different than me as my teacher rather than enemy.

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      • As do I! I’ve been humbled many times in this regard, and in having four children, it’s been hard to avoid learning this 🙂 My wife and I have been appreciating your blog over the years, and I’ve never commented, but this post particularly resonated because we are considering moving from the suburbs of NJ to a rural town in VT, because I also work from home, and we want our children to have more ‘scope for the imagination’ so to speak. Just wondering what sort of relationships we’ll run into if we do move. We come from a more fundamentalist background, so I can see this story from both perspectives. It’s sad to consider the initial responses of your neighbors, (and ways I’ve done the same thing) but also gives us hope in seeing your humble response. Ultimately, I do believe that the most effective and lasting transformation in ourselves and others occurs when we don’t judge (put up walls), but listen, and allow the ‘accuser’ to also be our teacher. So, thanks for sharing! It’s inspiring to see your example, and to hear your stories over the years.

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        • Dearly appreciate that you can see this from both perspectives. It’s harder to imagine how we come across when we don’t have that perspective. I didn’t suspect back then that my cheery optimism, progressive opinions, and relaxed parenting might come across as threatening to other people’s values. (And that’s before we had a peace flag on our porch and some handmade yard art out front!) It was more confusing to me than I allude to in this post — if you want more of the story it’s here:
          lauragraceweldon.com/2012/02/29/newcomers-to-gods-country)

          As for moving to a rural town in VT, here’s my (unsolicited) opinion. Go while your kids are young. The freedom to wander and expand, as you say so well, their ‘scope for the imagination’ makes a difference early on. I remember one afternoon not long after we’d moved here. I went out back and caught sight of my then eight-year-old. He was humming in that quiet contemplative way a happy child does, wandering through the trees, and then he plunked down in a scattering of leaves to lean against a wizened apple tree. I felt as if I was intruding and went back to the house, unseen, but the peace I saw in him filled my heart. It made our move entirely worthwhile. That was the year we pulled out kids out of school too, so their freedom expanded in wider ways too.

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        • The families who’d initially rejected us grew, slowly, to tolerate us. At first their kids weren’t allowed to play with my kids, but that changed pretty quickly. Interestingly, the people who most actively shunned us all eventually moved. The man who, the first month we were here, told my husband he didn’t want to see me or my children hiking in the woods behind our mutual homes (“I target shoot and I don’t look first”) was the first to sell his house, probably about two years after we moved in. I’m not saying for a moment that we had anything to do with it those folks moving, but heck, we’re still here!

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          • I wonder where they all ended up? Still, I reckon you did well by staying put and refusing to be cowed. As an Englishman, I always find stories like these quite amazing. We do, of course, have our share of religious fanatics, but certainly not in the numbers that you appear to have, and possibly not as extreme. I wonder whether it has still something to do with the history of those persecuted for their religious beliefs in Europe who fled to America hundreds of years ago, and whether their descendants just feel the need to continue their defiance in some way? Or am I talking nonsense?

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            • That’s an interesting consideration Mick. The U.S. is definitely a religious country compared to much of Europe and it could very well have something to do with the identity of those settlers, although most of us are more newly arrived (I think about a quarter of our population is 1st and 2nd generation immigrants). I’ve read in a number of sources that more fundamental forms of religion are more prevalent in times of social upheaval, something we can see around the world, so there’s that.

              Come see for yourself! I know you’re a traveler, Mick. You’re always welcome to visit us our little farm!

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  3. I’m sorry Laura, I think that this piece is perpetuating stereotypes. I love your book and I think that we’d probably be best buds if you lived close to me here in my part of the countryside. We both believe in homeschooling, having fun, thinking outside the box; we’re both weird, both introverts and have great senses of humor, great love for our kids and animals and all of that. We’d wave when we saw each other, watch each others houses when we were on vacation; I’d have you over for board game nights and some of my great pots of soup with cornbread. I’m a Christian and a homeschooling mom and I go to the library about every other day (I’ve been trying to talk them into giving me a platinum library card without overdue fees!). Please don’t lump us all together. We’re not all the same.

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    • I feel the same way about you Nicu Volunteer and wish we did indeed live closer.

      Bless you for calling me out on this. I’m horrified to think it came across as lumping all Christians together. I come from the gentle side of Christianity where there’s a lot of acceptance, prayer, and bland casseroles at potluck dinners. Before moving here I’d never had even one personal experience with someone using their faith to exclude, judge, or condemn. I hadn’t been hiding in a hole either, I’d also been writing a religion column for a Cleveland paper, the Plain Dealer, which took me to a new house of worship most weeks. No matter where I went —- church, synagogue, temple, mosque, or other setting —-worshipers told me it was all about Love. The capital L kind of love. The method I used to write about each of these places and the people I interviewed was to focus on the belief and awe that animated their faith.

      Maybe that’s part of why I was shocked that religion seemed to be used as a weapon in our new neighborhood. Maybe I was also somewhat raw after leaving behind us some pretty traumatizing circumstances in our last home. I’d hoped this little memoir piece simply described my reaction to the five families who greeted us (and in one case, threatened to shoot in my direction). I didn’t mean for a moment to imply that this experience in any way characterized Christians nor the gentle teachings of Jesus.

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