I have walked by the rambling façade of #500 and for years never knew it was the childhood home of America’s first serial killer. I have biked to the village store countless times and not once noticed, as I sped by, the overgrown road that was once bustling with mills and factories. I have driven frequently past a particular farm-stand, often stopping to buy eggs, but I amassed a tower of egg-cartons before I learned that the tiny two acre farm was home to 12 miniature horses, 100 chickens, a peach and plum orchard and a maple syrup shack.
I have become captivated by these kinds of stories – the stories that rarely make the front page of the newspaper. The stories that surround us, but that are often muffled by the commotion of our daily lives.
Five years ago I began exploring the small town of Gilmanton, New Hampshire, where I spent my childhood summers. I followed farmers up into the fields and visited elderly residents in their living rooms. I traced town border stones camouflaged in the woods and I explored shaded cemeteries with moss-shrouded gravestones.
The stories I found were truly remarkable. I met Valerie, who tends sixty-five goats, home-schools ten children and crafts artisanal goat cheese; Jim and Cheryl, who raise miniature horses, flocks of chickens and long eared rabbits and cultivate orchards of peaches and plums all on two tiny acres; Duncan, a third generation farmer, who harvests thousands of pounds of wild blueberries every summer; Chuck who runs a six-generation dairy farm; and David – a fireman, carpenter, town selectman and nearly one hundred year old storyteller.
This summer my nonfiction book Driving Backwards was published – a portrait of small town life. As I have shared Driving Backwards with communities in New England and up and down the Atlantic seaboard, I have been struck anew by the vitality of these everyday lives and the sheer density of orbiting stories.
And as we head now into the heat of August I would like to make a suggestion. August heat has a way of stretching out the days like taffy. For many, the month is linked to family: an adventure to a new place, a retreat to a childhood home, or even a few days spent in the quiet of one’s own neighborhood. I would like to urge you to take advantage of the sedated pace to listen more closely to the lives and the stories that surround you in your everyday.
Often the particulars of our neighborhoods fade to little more than backdrop. But, if you slow down just enough to listen and to ask, I think you will find that the everyday lives of the people around you are often remarkable.
I would urge you to drive a little slower down that dirt road you’ve motored down countless times before; perhaps pause when buying a tomato from a farmers market and ask the farmer about the history of the farm; perhaps drop by the local fire department on a quiet afternoon and learn a little about what it takes to be a fireman; or perhaps cross the street, join your 90-year-old neighbor on her porch and let her regale you with stories.
Most likely they will be stories you’ve never heard. They will be raucous and lively and vivid and poignant. Hopefully they will make you pause. And perhaps, like me, you will marvel at the quiet vibrancy that surrounds us.