Dancing in the World of In-between
I drive by these two old trucks almost every morning when Sadie (my golden retriever) and I are headed out for our morning walk. Somehow, they always feel like an echo from my childhood. They remind me of my Dad; he was a mechanic and a lover of all things with a motor. On this particular morning I decided to pull the car over and take a picture. I found myself wondering if the passing of time, and our participation in it, leaves an echo. It did not take long before I found myself feeling certain that it did.
My Dad grew up in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont; as did I. I think most places hold a certain energy and culture that is unique to the history, land and people who share its story. The Kingdom (as we like to call it) certainly does.
The Kingdom resides in the northeast corner of Vermont and includes three counties with a population of around 65,000. There are 56 towns in a land area of 2,027 square miles which is about 21% of the entire state of Vermont. 
Vermont is known as the Green Mountain State however, the Northeast Kingdom actually lies outside of that geological formation and instead is based on a set of long-ago volcanic islands. As a result, the views and landscapes differ sharply from those of the state's central mountain spine. 
I believe that we are formed by the land that we are born unto. The hills, valleys, and the shape and nature of the ground we cover form our muscles and our ways, making us more appropriately suited to live in and on that land. I also believe that the lives that we lead and how we live them contribute to the shaping of the land. Perhaps it is more of a rolling or reciprocal echo; an ongoing conversation between the land and us.
Newport (the town that I grew up in) and some of the other surrounding towns are also border towns between the United States and Canada. New-Port. Much of my family’s history actually lies on the other side of the border, with both my father’s and parts of my mother’s side immigrating into the United States through Canada. My father’s first language was French and everyone in his family was bilingual. As a child, the reality of a Borderland was present every day. The land that my parents had chosen to settle on was less than a mile from the Canadian border. The Border Patrol authorities often parked halfway up the hill that led to my childhood home. Their daily presence served as a reminder of the marked distinction between the two worlds and of the societal need or desire to guard the border from unlawful crossings or transports. Early in my life, I came to understand that there were lines that you simply did not cross; at least not without permission.
As a child I roamed freely through the land that surrounded our home. I spent many hours exploring the woods, open meadows, fields and shorelines of Lake Memphremagog. This natural landscape was my playground, a true friend, a valued teacher, and a source of nourishment. Large and impressive stones and rocks were far more than they appeared; they were magnificent stone altars that could serve as a forest princess’s bed or an imaginary cooking hearth that fed the community of animals and people that I imagined I served. Even the mud that remained after a rainstorm was a glorious gift that could be molded and shaped into a number of objects and magical concoctions. My child’s hands reached deep into the earth to connect with its rich and fertile substance.
My roaming also meant that I sometimes found myself standing at the border between two worlds. Standing in the middle of the woods staring at what is supposed to be an entirely different country that I was not supposed to enter. It didn't really make sense to me. It simply looked like the continuation of where I was already standing. The land that I already knew so well. At times I would run across and then run back. At other times I would dance on that dividing line. The crossing of borders or dancing in the world of in-between would come to be a consistent theme throughout my life.
There were, and are, many ways in which I belong to the land and the people of the Northeast Kingdom. If I had stayed in the woods, and my education and relationships remained focused there, well, things may have been different. However, I entered Catholic school, then public school, and as I grew into adolescence, I also understood that there were many ways in which I felt different and out of place.
In our community, there was a blending of cultures with our French-Canadian neighbors and relatives, whom at times were still referenced as “other”. Diversity of race, sexual orientation, or anything that seemed to stand outside of typically known and experienced life was considered strange, or not really considered at all. As of today, 89.9% of Vermont’s population is white. The Abenaki (the indigenous peoples of Vermont with whom I share ancestry) only won their hard-earned recognition from the state in 2011. They are yet to be federally recognized. When I look back, the only person that I am aware of being other than heterosexual worked at one of the local grocery stores. I only knew that piece of information as a result of the amount of unkind jokes and comments that could be heard circulating throughout the town.
As I approached the end of high school, I knew I had to leave. I had to get out and see what else the world had to offer. I had to get out before everything that was brewing inside of me; my thoughts, sexuality, my overall feelings of being “different” were exposed. I planned my escape and headed to the big city after finishing high school. There are many stories I could tell about that time period and all that took place over those next three years, but what is perhaps most important was what I realized about myself. Who I was capable of loving was not determined by their race, gender, socioeconomic status, cultural background, or society's rules.
This knowledge did not make the phone call that I had to make any easier. When I called my parents to tell them that I was pregnant, it was not a phone call that I made with joy or with anticipation of a celebratory reception. I made the call after weeks of deliberation and with full awareness that my news would not be received with congratulations. When I told my mother that I was expecting, the first question she asked was, “What color is the father?” I thought about addressing why that was such an inappropriate first response but decided to take what I knew would inevitably come without further delay. We both knew that she was waiting for a particular one word anyway.
“Black. Can I please talk to Dad?” I asked.
“I don’t think that is a good idea,” she said. “Now is not a good time.”
It would take months before it was a “good time”. If I am remembering correctly, my father and I only spoke once before I made the return trip to my childhood home and introduced him to his grandson. I don’t remember how I ended up getting into the truck and riding with him into town on the day of my return. I am fairly certain he must have asked because I do not think I would have done so voluntarily. I do, however, remember feeling incredibly apprehensive and nervous. I placed my newborn son in his car seat, strapped him in, and strapped myself in, in more ways than one.
He turned the key in the ignition, and his ever-present country music rose up from the radio and we started down the hill on the road into town. It was a fairly quiet ride for the first couple of miles. Me, staring out the window and thinking how strange it was to be back where I had grown up, wondering what it would be like to experience comfort in this type of familiarity. Around three miles down the road, my father pulled the truck over and turned off the ignition.
Shit, this is it, I thought. I emotionally, and mentally, braced myself for what he was about to say while nervously moving my eyes back-and-forth from the window, to my son in the back seat, to where my Dad was sitting preparing to speak.
“You are not the daughter that I wanted, and you are certainly not the one that I had imagined.” At this point, he turned and looked at my son, his first, and as of yet only, grandson who was nestled in the back seat of his pickup truck. “But you are the daughter that I needed, and you have taught me more about what it means to be a human than any other person that I know. Thank you.” I watched as tears welled in his eyes. “Do you understand?” he said.
With tears welling in my eyes and matching his, I said, “Yes, I understand.”
He reached over and put his hand on top of mine for a moment and then lifted it to turn the key in the ignition. The truck rumbled back to life and Waylon Jennings once again began singing about Luckenbach, Texas, and getting back to the basics of love. I turned my head to look out the window and watch as the road and landscape that I knew so well, and had traveled so many times before, flew by. As my heart rate began returning to its normal rhythm I wiped the tears from my eyes. I thought that somehow the road seemed a little different now. I wondered; would this conversation leave an echo? Is it possible that it could be sensed or felt by someone else at some other time?
I said earlier that I believed that the land we are born unto shapes us and I also believe that we shape the land - in more ways than just the physical. We (the land and us) are shaped by our ways of being with each other, the ways in which we are in relationships, our willingness to open our eyes and hearts to one another, and our willingness to live in authenticity, even when it feels different than what we may have previously known or have been taught.
I have a granddaughter now. I find myself wondering what echoes will fall upon her ears and heart. And I wonder, what will be the echo that she will make?
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