Don’t look back: Rutland’s future is ahead of us
I write this in response to a fantastic editorial in the Aug. 12 edition of the Rutland Herald, titled “In Search of a Friend.”
To equate our city with a friend who needs our support, not our bullying, is both a wonderful analogy and constructive idea.
The author sees that, yes, we have problems with drugs and unemployment, but only looking wistfully back on the “better” days is not going to help. “Looking back and creating a beautiful past is always easier than looking forward and doing the work to create a beautiful future,” the author writes.
As a relative newcomer to this city, I see it through different eyes. I have no romantic attachment to a past long-gone. While, as a history buff myself, I too love the grainy photos from Rutland’s past, my personal association with this city is of a much more recent past: the 1980s and ’90s.
I moved to Castleton from England in 1985. In 1994, I left the area and didn’t return for 13 years. I came back to a very different city, one in which I have chosen to raise my children because it is now a place I can see is once again on the edge of greatness. Maybe not greatness in exactly the way long-time residents and travelers down memory lane may remember it, but the kind that births creative and positive change. That means things will be different.
I tell my children that “different” doesn’t necessarily mean bad; different just means different. For many this is a hard concept to accept. And it is here I have to take exception with the author of the editorial.
One difference the author looks at is our church-going practices. He writes, “There’s truth in the claim that the declining role of religion in our lives has eroded the fabric that holds us together,” and he continues that communal gatherings such as Friday Night Live, “are not spiritual, and they are not going to instill in us one set of uniform values.”
As we have learned recently, Vermont is the least religious state in the nation. Some would say, in that case, that as a state we have no moral compass. But we continually top the lists as the least violent, healthiest and, most recently, the sexiest. (OK, highest in sexual health, but we are darn sexy, too.)
Can we really say then, that because the majority of us don’t attend church, we don’t have a “uniform set of values?” What values are we talking about here? Love thy neighbor? While, according to a report by the Vermont Community Foundation, we are not very good at giving our money to charities, we are nevertheless the highest national “contributor” of Peace Corps volunteers per capita and rank ninth in the country for volunteer hours per capita.
If we look at Rutland as a microcosmic example of this statistic, the turnout of those who helped get the Vermont Farmers Food Center up and running in just a few months was truly impressive.
And in comparison — purely from my own observation as a short term resident of Mississippi, the most religious state in the nation — the difference in social services between here and there is staggering. And what about caring for the Earth? Isn’t that a value we need to consider that isn’t necessarily taught in Sunday school? Vermont ranks first on the national list of greenest states.
So, can we really say that it is the decline of religious affiliation and the supposed consequential lack of values that has inflicted Rutland with a loss of innocence, as the Herald editorial claims? I instead stand behind this sentence: “… community gatherings and community connections we are building today are just as valid and worthy of our respect.”
I completely agree that churches continue to serve an important role due to their community-building capacity, as they always did. But also as did the many small and well-frequented stores, the “hopping” Woolworth’s, the dance halls.
When we abandoned our downtowns in the 1960s, we left behind our additional gathering places. Farmers markets, the arts communities, the educational organizations, the bookstores, the coffee shops, the recreational clubs, the neighborhood gatherings, etc., are today’s other equally value-based community-building alliances.
As for a solution for the drug problem, I don’t claim enough information to offer an opinion. But what do I know is this: strong communities are built on trust, which comes from knowing each other. It seems somewhere along the way we got scared and began to stay in our homes, distancing ourselves from nature and other people. This, I believe, is the true loss of innocence. Isolation and loss of connection with our natural surroundings breeds fear and the type of loneliness that substance abuse feeds upon.
We have a long way to go, but just the fact that this conversation is happening gives me hope. We are seeing a problem with nostalgic stagnancy and beginning to also talk together about a solution. We don’t necessarily need to go back to church or to a time gone by, but every one of us does needs to find a place we can call “home,” a place or group where we experience belonging.
As the editorial so correctly said, when we feel we are surrounded by friends, we will also begin to see our city as a friend “worthy of our time and energy” who doesn’t deserve the bad-mouthing, but rather a helping hand.
Joanna Tebbs Young is a writing instructor and Rutland resident who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column first appeared in the Rutland Reader.