Clippings: The importance of where one lives

While I was interviewing Jen Roberts in her Bridport home, she said something that made me want to pause my digital voice recorder.

“I was always more interested in where I wanted to be than what I wanted to do,” she said.

I was interviewing Jen and her husband Judd about their decision to raise their two daughters, Mirabelle and Adalaide, in Addison County.

After my chat with Jen, I headed out to their large garden with Judd. Roughly half the family’s food comes from their garden year-round (they store potatoes and other produce for the winter). While we were talking, Judd pulled some beets out of the ground and offered them to me.

I’m graduating from Middlebury College in February, and I’ve put some thought into what to do after graduation. But mostly, I’ve been focused on the “what I want to do” part of Jen’s statement rather than “where I want to be.”

I want to pursue journalism, and with the way the industry’s doing, I’ll work pretty much anywhere they’ll pay me (the one place I refuse to live is Los Angeles; as a San Francisco native, I dislike the Dodgers, bad public transportation, plastic surgery and believe California should be split in half).  

But I do like most places, and I think I could get a lot out of living somewhere new, whether that’s a big city or a small town.

Judd and I had a good talk in his backyard about life in Bridport. He and Jen both grew up in Addison County, and they knew they wanted to live here, even if that would mean making less money.

I accepted the beets Judd had offered me, and a few nights later as I ate the beets in a salad I made, I thought more about how Jen cared more about where she lived than what she did.

From talking to her and Judd, my sense is that a few different components of the “where” of Addison County appeal to them.

There is the land quite literally — they spend lots of time outside and take good care of their garden. They also enjoy this location because their daughters are growing up within 10 minutes of both sets of grandparents.

And then there is the community around here. In the past few weeks alone, I’ve reported on volunteer firefighters, a few families that renovated an East Middlebury baseball field together, and a group of people who get together every few weeks to play the ukulele.

Most people around here seem to be very aware of where they live — both in terms of the people in this community and the land that surrounds them.

In the larger context of today’s world, it can be easy to forget about where you are. It’s easy to communicate with people all over the world, and if you cough up enough cash, you can sometimes buy a watermelon from a supermarket during the winter. 

Although I’m not on the same page as Jen quite yet — what I do is still very important to me — I’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t ignore where you are.

This is true on a personal level: being engaged with people around you in the real, concrete world is ultimately more fulfilling than life in the world of bits and bytes.

But also on a political level: as easy as it can be to forget about where you live, there’s no way to escape the fact that that winter watermelon burned fossil fuels on its way to the supermarket, or that where you choose to build a house affects the rest of your community.

For reporting I’m doing on immigrant workers from Mexico working in the dairy industry in Vermont, I talked to a 25-year-old worker who wanted to go by the name “J.”

“J” lives on a dairy farm in the Northeast Kingdom, where he works eight-hour days seven days a week. Since “J” is undocumented, he almost never leaves the farm for fear of deportation (there are a lot of immigration officials near his farm because it is close to the Canadian border). Every week, his boss buys him groceries, and “J” uses phone cards to speak with his family in Mexico. 

Jen, Judd and countless other people I’ve interacted with in Addison County have shown me that being aware of your physical location leads to personal fulfillment, and talking to “J” helped me realize that being involved in the where of where you are is also an important privilege.

So after I graduate from college, I want to remain aware of the where of my life as well as the what. Having a sense of place is an important responsibility, but it also seems to be what makes people happy, regardless, dare I say, of where they are.

At the end of my talk with “J”, he told me that he wires most of the money he earns back to his wife in Mexico. When he’s made enough money, “J” plans to move back to the town in Chiapas where he grew up. He and his wife have plans to build a house.

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