Cultivating the Magic of Maine
I awoke the other morning to the sound of birds chittering madly and my eighteen-year-old son shouting at me to turn the light off. The bird cries, it developed, were coming from my iPad — an appealing though ineffectual alarm-clock setting — and the boy cries, which worked better, were coming from a loft that my son has appropriated for his own use in addition to converting the entire basement into a tricked-out teen bachelor pad. The light in question was that of dawn over Penobscot Bay, an event which, despite being recurrent and predictable, always seems to come as a visceral shock to young men of a certain disposition. I suppose next year, when my son is away at college, I'll have to wake up on my own.
This off-to-college business has been on my mind lately for various reasons, not least of which is my daughter's imminent return for summer vacation. For this is the season when azaleas bloom and phoebes nest under the deck and the streets of small-town Maine fill again with young adults returning from far and wide to encamp, for a while at least, in their childhood bedrooms.
One of the few melancholy aspects of living in Maine is the relative paucity of year-round residents between the ages of, I'll hazard, eighteen through thirty-five. Maine is a place were people grow up — a wonderful place indeed for that — and then, all too often, move away from. The wide world beyond our borders glitters irresistibly with dazzling city lights and decent-paying jobs and an endless menu of options and possibilities. Coming of age in Maine often, and especially often for the best and brightest, means putting it behind you.
And then of course, at a certain later stage, people start coming back. Or new people come, for pretty much the same reasons we did ourselves, way back when: this is a beautiful state, a great place to raise kids, peaceful and friendly, The Way Life Should Be, and all the rest of it, no less true for being timeworn and somewhat clichéd. It's not that the city lights have grown dim, or the Maine job market magically blossomed. But at some point in the ongoing process of maturation many folks discover that their values have shifted or their world-views evolved or something along those lines, and now the subtle and enduring qualities of a life in Maine beckon more persuasively than the once-irresistible allures of the wider world.
It doesn't always happen, but it happens a lot. Most of us who are parents hope dearly that it will happen with our own our kids. In the meantime we have this odd demographic curve that is nice and plump toward the ends of the graph but kind of saggy in the middle. Which in turn becomes a self-reinforcing thing, because who wants to be the only twenty-five-year-old in town?
From what I can tell this is an all-but-permanent feature of Maine life. If there's any kind of gradual change going on, I'm not seeing it. And really I don't think about this much anymore — except for right now, with my youngest son about to head off into the world and my daughter about to come back for the summer, along with hordes of other young people I remember as kids and would now like to know as grown-ups.
The other reason this general topic has been on my mind is that I've been watching, from my perspective as a high school teacher, other family dramas unfold, more or less parallel to my own: kids getting ready to leave home, parents struggling to let go, everyone hoping for the best. And from my perspective as a fiction-writer I find myself tying to map out the plot lines, conjuring up futures mostly bright but occasionally turbulent, scenes from mysterious future lives. I wonder which of these young people will end up back in Maine someday, and really I haven't the faintest idea. Some of them, I hope, but not all of them, surely.
As a parent, what can you do? Probably not much at this point. You just have to believe that something about the magic of Maine — a phrase I type without irony — will have worked its way deeply into these kids, and whatever it is will lure them back again, sooner or later. Actually I do believe that. And in the short term, there's always summer.