What is it about leaving, anyway, that has always seemed so enticing?
By Karen Mittelman
Like many Vermonters, I am a transplant. I moved here from somewhere else, envisioning a fresh start and excited by the prospect of a new job. I was also enchanted by the idea of making a permanent home in a place where my family has vacationed for half a century, since I was small.
My husband and I moved from sunny southern Maryland in September 2017. The day we closed on our house in Marshfield, an epic power outage shut down the electrical grid from central Vermont to New Hampshire for two days. We conducted our pre-settlement walkthrough with the aid of flashlights and a huge dose of trust—trust that all of the appliances were in fact working, that the water would flow again once the electric well pump was up and running.
In our first three months, we locked ourselves out of the house on a cold night at 2 a.m. wearing nothing but T-shirts and sweatpants, and sheepishly roused a neighbor to call a locksmith. Several weeks later, Bill slipped and fell on the ice, injuring his shoulder. And in December, we made the sad decision to say farewell to our 14-year-old chocolate lab, who was struggling with the winter and fading fast. By New Year’s Eve, when the temperature had stayed below zero for three weeks straight, we were both miserable.
On a dreary morning in February, I drove to work in our pickup truck. I almost never drove the truck, but Bill had taken my car on a road trip. Heading toward Montpelier on Town Hill Road, I crested a hill and hit a patch of black ice that was shrouded in morning mist.
Instead of the firm grip of my snow tires on the road, the truck’s rear wheels lurched right and everything spun away. Almost before I could catch my breath, I was careening down an icy hillside. Black tree branches flew across the window as the truck flipped twice before coming to rest on its side in the snow. I was pinned by my seatbelt, which had kept me from flying through the windshield. Once I wrestled the buckle open, I was able to climb out the window. Two other drivers pulled over, called 911, and helped me make my way up the hill to the road.
The truck was totaled, the roof of the cab crushed in by the impact of the fall. I walked away bearing only a few bruises, but deeply shaken. There was no denying it now: Vermont was trying to kill me.
My truck accident seemed to underscore all of the ways I didn’t belong here. Hitting black ice was an apt metaphor for my first winter in Vermont: the world scrambled, everything around me tilting and nearly unrecognizable. For the rest of that winter—two more long months—I resisted Vermont. When I wasn’t at the office, I hid indoors and longed to be somewhere else. Every day was its own exhausting trial.
When I confided to a colleague that the winter had been rough, he told me, quite emphatically, that he’d hated Vermont in his first year. Hated it. A friend admitted that she’d cried every day when she first moved here. Another colleague observed that she’d lived in Vermont for 10 years, but had spent the first nine adjusting. Becoming a Vermonter started to sound like some kind of endurance test.
Lately I’ve been reading about a monastery in Meteora, Greece, built on top of a steep cliff. For most of its existence the only way to access this monastery was to climb a ladder or be hauled up by ropes. All food and supplies were delivered the same way. It strikes me that there is something monastic about life in rural northern Vermont. Our spectacularly beautiful natural landscape is also spectacularly hostile to human survival. So much time is spent making sure everyone has enough food and warmth to survive. The isolation can feel extreme, even when a neighbor’s house is only a half a mile down the road.
I’ve met many people, of course, who embrace Vermont winters. For skiers and snowmobilers, the mountains are a snowy paradise. For others, winter can be a time to draw within—to meditate, write, knit, pray, make soup, sculpt. So I’ve begun to ask myself how I might adapt to my new surroundings. Last winter, I strapped on Yak Trax and snowshoes and learned to walk in the woods around our house. This year, as the colder weather approaches, I’m filling my freezer with fresh blueberries for pies and cakes.
I’m also watching myself change. This will be my third winter in Vermont, and I’m realizing that living here has already taught me several things about myself.
Living here intensifies my relationship with the natural world—its temperatures, wind gusts, snowfall. This landscape has the power to both terrify and inspire. The way I inhabit my own body, my physical presence and movement through my surroundings, is altered after two years. I register the tiniest shifts in the wind and the temperature, because they might portend a squall or a stormfront. And I love the freedom of walking through fields and forests alone, or—every once in a while—paddling a kayak in a mountain stream without another human being in sight.
Being in Vermont at 60 makes me feel older, perhaps too old to start forging fresh connections. Living in an isolated rural village means you must be more intentional about creating community. At my age, it feels daunting to put energy into building the web of knowledge, habits, and relationships that makes you feel anchored in place. Yet I’m longing for those anchors. My sons and grandkids, who live in Brooklyn and Philadelphia, seem much too far away; my closest friends are scattered across the country.
But the most profound realization is this: I have begun to question the almost automatic embrace of change that has guided me up to this point. All my life I have rushed headlong into change, convinced that reinventing your circumstances is always a good thing. That it stretches you, grants new possibilities, keeps you alive and open. Sociologists talk about “leavers” and “stayers,” and I have always been a leaver. When my husband and I married, he had lived in only two places in his entire life, and his mom still owned the house where he and his brothers were born. I had moved more than a dozen times, and fully expected that trend to continue.
Now I’m not so sure. And I wonder: What is it about leaving, anyway, that has always seemed so enticing? For me, leaving a job, a relationship, a city was a way of announcing to the world: I’m changing. To leave was to draw a stark line between before and after, one that was impossible to ignore. There have been many such lines drawn in my life. The first was when my mother left us—my father, me, and my little sister—to find a new identity apart from being a wife and mother. Like the Vermont road beneath my wheels, the earth shifted under me that day. Eventually I found my footing again, and in the process I gained a healthy respect for change, along with a faith that I would always be able to reinvent myself, no matter what.
Maybe the idea of fresh starts has grown old. I think I am searching for someplace where I can stay, and belong. I’ve joined a weekly yoga class and found a wonderful writing group. My husband volunteers three days a week for Meals on Wheels and sings in a community chorus. I continue to harvest the last of our blueberries and pack them into freezer bags, each one a tiny investment in the future. We’re still uneasy, but digging in, at least for now.
I don’t know yet if I will find the connections I am seeking in Vermont, and I’m not sure how many more brutal winters I can withstand. There are some days when I’m certain it was ridiculous for us to pick up and move our lives here. It’s the beginning of fall as I’m writing, and the leaves on the maple and birch trees outside my window have just begun to turn, shining gold and orange in the waning sunlight. Fall has always been my favorite season, and it’s stunningly beautiful on our hill. Whether we leave or stay, I’m thankful for this new awareness—that deep connections matter more than I’d imagined; that making a new home gets more difficult as I grow older; and that change can send me spinning out of balance, unsure where to find solid ground.
Karen Mittelman C’81 Gr’87 is the executive director of the Vermont Arts Council, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and recently published her first novel, Gone Bolshevik (Shires Press).