Held, In Place

A writer and retired educator is drawn back, once again, to Vermont.

Years ago, when I fancied that I was becoming a scholar, I went off to study at Cambridge University. Twenty-five years old and newly married, I was writing a doctoral thesis in political philosophy, and my reason for going to Cambridge was to study the ideas of Alfred North Whitehead under the supervision of a distinguished disciple of his, the Reverend Dr. William Norman Pittenger.

Dr. Pittenger was a Life Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, and as I climbed the stairs to the great man’s rooms for our first tutorial, I was as nervous as I had ever been. But as it happened, Dr. Pittenger turned out to be as gracious as he was learned, and he put me immediately at ease. He asked me to tell him my story, where I had studied, how I had become interested in philosophy. I got as far as mentioning my undergraduate years at Middlebury College, when he raised a hand to stop me. He was beaming with pleasure. In his deep, plummy voice, he declaimed, “The strength of the hills is his also!”

This of course is the lovely line from the 95th Psalm chiseled into the entablature above the portal to the Middlebury College chapel, where apparently Dr. Pittenger had once been a visiting lecturer. As a student I had made no point of remembering it, and no one could have accused me of spending much time in the chapel, but as he intoned the words, I immediately felt myself back in the bracing air of Middlebury and feeling, for some reason, that I was home.

That impression—that in the deepest sense Middlebury was my home and that it was somehow calling me back to it—would grow even stronger in the years that followed. I have now had 40 years to consider the matter, and I cannot attribute that calling to mere nostalgia for my college days, satisfying as they were. All of that—the almost unbearable scholastic rigor, the experience of daily living in a dense hive of unforgettable new people, the high spirits, the exhilarating and humiliating self-discovery—was undeniably formative and important to me, but that is not what beckoned. Something older and more elemental, perhaps even geological, seemed to be at work, something like the strength of the hills.

For most of my life, Vermont has been, literally, far from home.

I was born in Chicago and grew up in what became a suburb northwest of the city, Arlington Heights. The native Vermonters I have come to know call midwesterners “flatlanders,” among many other things, but unless they have ever been to Arlington Heights, Illinois, they cannot know how apt the term is. There are no heights in Arlington Heights. I have clear memories of first learning to ride my bicycle and then, as I grew older and stronger, cycling miles and miles trying to find some grade in the pavement that might be considered a “hill.” There was nothing at all aversive about my youth as a flatlander.

In fact, I believed, in those Eisenhower fifties and pre-Kennedy assassination sixties, that I lived in the benign epicenter of an unassailably prosperous and happy land. My larger cultural reference at the time came from the weekly magazines we got at home, the Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, Life, and Look. Norman Rockwell used to paint covers for some of those magazines, and while some people maintain that he prettified and sentimentalized American life in his renderings, they looked exactly like Arlington Heights to me.

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