Small-Town Matters | Life in the Kingdom

A community is stitched together by timeless rituals.

By Ben Hewitt

Jun 21 2021


Small-Town Matters

Photo Credit : Tom Haugomat
Small-Town Matters
Photo Credit : Tom Haugomat

Even here in the rural northern reaches of Vermont, the pandemic has disrupted many things, not the least of them Town Meeting Day, which in these parts is typically held on the morning of the first Tuesday of March. On this day, our little town can usually muster 20 to 25 people to gather in the old town hall, which normally is open only on Wednesday mornings from 8 to noon or whenever you happen to see Connie’s or Regina’s car in the driveway. We sit in folding chairs in the hall’s main room, drinking coffee and eating doughnuts. The room is lined with huge, old single-pane windows that sweat buckets of condensation.

I like town meeting. There’s the social aspect of it, the governance aspect of it, and of course the potluck aspect of it. It’s true I don’t much like debating the school budget (which seems to move in one direction only) or the minutiae of some minor town expense or another, but then aren’t these the messy, uninspired realities of life? And who better to tackle the messy, uninspired realities of life with than my own community?

I also like Town Meeting Day because it’s a harbinger of spring. It’s when you’re supposed to have your maple trees tapped to catch the first big run, and it’s when you can take final measure of your remaining woodpile and decide whether you have enough dry wood to get you through or whether it’s time to begin mixing in some fresh-cut to stretch your rations (if you haven’t been doing so already—though if you have, you’re probably a little sheepish to have been caught so shorthanded and aren’t likely to admit it). Last year’s town meeting was the final large-ish social event I attended before the lockdown. Some of you probably think it’s hilarious that I’m describing a 20-to-25-person social event as “large-ish.” Others of you know exactly where I’m coming from.

This year, our town decided to hold Town Meeting Day in May, when presumably the weather will be conducive to gathering outside, though who knows. May’s not the most reliable month, weather-wise. I’ve seen my share of snow in May; I’ve gotten my share of sunburns in May, too. I’ve swatted more blackflies than I care to talk or even think about. I’ve lived through Mays that were so cold that the confident measure of firewood I took back on Town Meeting Day turned out to be woefully inaccurate, and we ended up dipping into the pile reserved for the following winter, the barely seasoned green wood popping and hissing as it burned, me cursing as I coaxed each morning fire to life, vowing (as I’ve vowed so many times before) to never, ever be caught short of dry wood again.

This will be my first town meeting as a member of the select board, a position I was offered only after our neighbor Scott moved over the hill into another town, thus vacating his seat. I’m a little suspicious that I wasn’t actually anyone’s first choice for the position, but I try not to think about it too hard. Besides, I like being on the select board. There are three of us, and we meet twice each month to decide such things as whether to authorize the purchase of tire chains for the town backhoe (approved with little debate, as everyone knows you do your best to stay in the good graces of the road crew) and what to do about the fact that our zoning administrator abruptly resigned. (If it occurs to you that the obvious solution is to find a new one, you’re right. You also probably haven’t tried to find a zoning administrator in a town of 200.)

The business we conduct as a select board is similar to the business the town conducts on Town Meeting Day, which is to say, it’s commensurate with the scale of this place. It feels manageable to me, the way living in a small town feels manageable to me; I can see and hear and feel and sometimes even smell what’s going on. I can often literally wrap my hands around it, but even when I can’t, I can at least wrap my head around it. Lately, this feels more important to me than ever, since the world has been particularly full of things I can’t wrap either my hands or my head around, no matter how hard I try.

The select board meets in the same room where town meeting is held. We used to meet in the small adjacent office where the town clerk and the town treasurer (that’d be Connie and Regina, respectively) do their business, but we’ve moved to the main room so that we can keep our distance from one another. Since the town hall is only about a half mile from our house, I generally head out on foot about 10 minutes before our meeting is scheduled to begin. Sometimes I ride my bike, which means I need only about three minutes. If I’m skiing to the meeting, I split it right down the middle: Six, six and a half minutes is plenty. I haven’t driven to a meeting yet, and I’ve got this idea that I’ll never drive to a meeting, though you know what they say about best-laid plans. Whatever the case, I enjoy the fresh air, especially in winter, when I’d likely not otherwise be outside at that time of day.

By the time you read this, assuming all goes to plan, we’ll have hosted our rescheduled town meeting. Maybe, if the pandemic has continued to wane and the vaccines have kept coming, we’ll have had our annual potluck, even if it was a little cool, or rainy, or if we needed to shoo away the occasional early-season blackfly. With any luck, we’ll have found a new zoning administrator. If things really went our way, it will have been a fine sugaring season, the snow will have melted from even the north-facing hollows, and the brief, take-the-morning-chill-off fires at home will have been fed with what I have saved of the good, dry wood cut the summer before. There probably would have been the usual talk about budgets and committees and new people in town, the usual laments about taxes and fees and roads that need fixing. It will have been an easy mud season, and the roads will have firmed up nicely—even the spot by the one-way bridge, the one I cross on my short walk home.