Friday, June 10, 2011

Journey of Awakening – 35: I’m a Mainer


September 1977. The sun’s rays streamed in the east-facing window of my room at Harry and Ellis’ beautiful home in South Portland. The seagulls swooped around the lighthouse, so close I felt I could almost reach out and touch it. Harry had already left for the hospital. Ellis was up and had a light breakfast prepared for me. It was my first day on the Maine Town Meeting circuit. I pulled on my jeans and long sleeved sport shirt and my red and black plaid lumberjack shirt which I wore every day that fall. I had driven up from Boston on Sunday night so I could get an early start and have a full week of calling on townsfolk before making the drive back to Boston Friday night. I chatted briefly with Ellis as I gulped down orange juice and coffee and inhaled a hardly chewed piece of toast. I was ready.

Jumping in my trusty rusty green Nova, I headed out “downeast” as true Mainers would say, and with my AAA map on the seat next to me, came upon my first town that looked like a likely prospect, York, Maine.

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I had passed by York on the way to Portland and was struck by its rugged beauty, set on the ragged Maine coastline, which I would see a lot more of and come to love. York County is the southern-most county in Maine. The county seat town is Alfred, a little ways inland from York.

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Alfred, Maine Town Hall & York County Courthouse

I thought it might be a little easier to find my way around there, so I stopped at a gas station to ask where I might find the Head Selectman’s house. I got the typical New England directions:

“Ya go down past the Dunkin Donuts and take the fork to the right, then when ya come to the schoolhouse there’ll be a roundabout and ya go all the way around it to the last road, then you’ll go a ways and come to a 3-way stop. After that ya take the first right after and when ya come to the graveyard ya take the first right after and Janet’s house is about the 5th one on the left. It’s a big white one but ya can’t see it from the road, so if ya go past her driveway and come to a dead end, ya’ve gone too far. Turn around and stop at one of the farm houses and ask where Janet lives. They’ll tell ya.”

I did have to stop and ask a farmer and discovered what my colleagues had told me about Mainers. I found him out by his machine shed and told him who I was, why I was there, and that I was looking for the Town Head Selectman, Janet. “Two driveways up that way on the right.” I thanked him as he turned on his heel and headed around the back of the building, leaving me standing. I thought I hear a faint ‘A-yeh’ as he turned. So that was a good lesson for me in a nutshell. Mainers are not unfriendly, just no-nonsense folk who go about their business and don’t spend a lot of time chit-chatting, at least until they’ve decided you are not there to waste their time.

I found Janet and gave her my letter of introduction from the Governor of her state and asked a few questions about Alfred, being careful to mention a few things I’d picked up about the history and uniqueness of York County. I was a little surprised and then delighted when she expressed interest in having one of the 16 community forums as part of Town Meeting ’76 in Alfred. She said she would talk to the other 2 Selectmen and some of the other community leaders, but thought they would be interested. This was more than I could have hoped for. Janet was the right person. I had been lucky. We would not always approach the Selectmen first, because we emphasized that the forums were not to be political gatherings but a chance for townspeople to meet to celebrate and give voice to their concerns, hopes and dreams for their community. Our usual strategy was to ask “Who is the one person in your town who, if you want to get something done, you go to?” Often you would get “Oh, Josie Adams, the chair of the annual town picnic” or “you need to see Rev. Johnson at the Congregational Church.” We would usually get 3 or 4 names to begin our approach. Then we’d go to the first person and say “Rev. Johnson, we were talking with Josie Adams and she said if you were for doing this in your town she’d help and get the word out and organize the food.” Then we’d go to the Selectmen and say “Josie and Rev. Johnson think this is a good idea for the town and if you’ll support them, they’ll do all the work on it.” And so it would go until we got enough support to make it public, get flyers up and get it in the local paper.

Now I had the first of 16 already scheduled, on my first day. “This is going to be a breeze.” I went back to my South Portland B & B and reported to Harry and Ellis at dinner on my successful day, after calling Linda and reporting to the House and the Strike Force leaders of course. I couldn’t wait to get on the road to the next town.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Journey of Awakening – 34: New England Welcome

Fall 1977. Our new home at 27 Dartmouth in Boston was just a six block walk from Copley Plaza and in the shadow of the recently built John Hancock building, a massive skyscraper made almost entirely of blue tinted glass.


One problem the architects had not anticipated was that in the extreme temperature variations from winter to summer in Boston, combined with the winds at the top of the 60 story structure and the bonding used to keep them in place, these huge 500 lb. panes of glass would, without warning, pop right out and fall the forty or fifty stories to the walkway below. It is a wonder that no one was killed or even injured during the time they were figuring out how to reinforce the frames so as to prevent their popping out.

It was quite a contrast to see this tall modern obelisk of blue mirrored glass against the skyline of Old Boston, overlooking the Charles River and Beacon Hill, not far from Quincy Market and the Old North Church.

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We loved Boston and enjoyed hearing stories from our colleagues whose families had lived there for a couple of hundred years. It did not take us long to settle in and get our House assignments made. Eric started 4th grade in a school down the street within walking distance of our House. He loved his new teacher and wanted to invite her to his birthday party the House hosted for him. And she showed up. It was just five of us adults and Eric but he had a ball and so did we, playing birthday games like grade schoolers.

Nancy Trask was a librarian and got a job at the M.I.T. library. Linda was quickly hired as an office secretary at Boston University.

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And Tom Reemtsma had a job, I forget where, but he had the task of driving all three to work in Nancy’s big Chevy station wagon. One thing we learned well in the Order was how to build a strong resume and acquire jobs very fast.

An additional aspect of our assignment complexity was that we were as an organization entering the culminating stages of the Town Meeting campaign. The Area Priors based in New York assigned two staff to organize a team of volunteers to complete New England, which had barely been touched by the campaign the previous year. We were to alternate between our Hartford and Boston Houses on successive weekends, which meant that Linda, Nancy and Tom had to host a group of about 10 additional bodies every other weekend, arrange lodging and meals, and prepare the teams for the next week’s foray into the New England wilderness.

Nelson Stover and Larry Ward were our two “Strike Force” coordinators. Larry was an impressive black man who had grown up on the west side of Chicago. Today he is an impressive meditation teacher and author. Nelson was a creative white guy who today is a prominent advocate and supporter of the ICA’s work in India, which was begun in the early 1970s. These two always planned grand celebrations whenever our Town Meeting teams would gather for the weekend. One unforgettable one of these was the weekend in Hartford when we all went to see the opening of the first Star Wars movie and then returned to the House for a meal and movie conversation, followed by a ‘star wars line dance’ in costume, where we all took turns making up weird movements as we danced between lines of clapping ‘aliens’.

My assignment was to arrange for 16 Town Meetings in Maine (one per county), to be completed by Thanksgiving.


Tim Karpoff, the Hartford House Prior, this tall, handsome, ex-all-American wrestler from one of the Ivy League colleges, was assigned to finish off New Hampshire and Vermont. Another woman had Rhode Island, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. Connecticut and Massachusetts actually had teams of two assigned. I was warned by some of the locals about how standoffish “Mainers” could be and how difficult my task would probably be, and how they didn’t “cotton to outsiders.” Another complication was the name Town Meeting. New Englanders invented the Town Meeting. It was the local governance structure for almost all towns. There were three “Selectmen” chosen to run things in between Town Meetings. But whenever major issues needed to be decided, a legal Town Meeting had to be called and all voting residents were notified so they could be in on the decision. So we had to use the term ‘community forums’ and assure local leaders and residents that we were not trying to usurp their decision-making structure when selling them on Town Meeting ’76.


I headed off early in September in the House’s only car, a beat-up old Chevy Nova, to win over these standoffish Mainers. Fortunately, we did have a handful of colleagues in the state, but they were in Maine’s largest city, Portland. Harry and Ellis Bliss lived in South Portland, in a big colonial style house overlooking the ocean. They had agreed to put me up whenever I needed a place to stay overnight. They gave me my own key and made me more than welcome. They became dear friends and enthusiastic Town Meeting supporters. Harry was a prominent Maine cardiac surgeon. Ellis was a daughter of an old established Maine family. They were members of a local UCC church, which was an added connection. One story I heard about the sort of man Harry was, that during the Vietnam War he took his lunch hours, most days, to stand on a street corner, many times alone, holding his sign in silent protest.

Well, not all Mainers were going to make my task so difficult. And at least I had the most comfortable and hospitable bed and breakfast in the state as my home away from home. How hard can this job be?

Stay tuned.