Maine can be a challenging place to live, and work, especially for those of us “from away,” and sometimes even more so for those from Massachusetts. Perhaps owing to complications from their past of once being one state, Maine and Massachusetts do not always play very well together. People from Massachusetts tend to view Maine as something of a playground, from the coastal beaches to quiet lakes to mountains for skiing, full of people and places whose primary worth is to cater to their vacation whims. Mainers tend to view people from Massachusetts as obnoxious know-it-alls who don’t drive well, referring to them as “flatlanders,” or even more contemptuously, “massholes.”
I was born in Massachusetts, not far from Boston, and grew up there. I went to graduate school there, was ordained there, and began my ministry career there. Massachusetts is an especially good place to be part of the United Church of Christ, as the Massachusetts Conference is a large and active Conference.
Whenever I find myself despairing of my exile to the north, I think of a class that I took at Harvard Divinity School. It wasn’t so much a lecture I remember, but an off-hand sort of comment that was made by the teacher, Ron Thiemann, who was Dean of the Divinity School at the time. He made a remark that suggested his dismay at the tendency of graduates of places like HDS to cluster in certain, specific places—the Cambridge/Boston area, sections of New York City, certain suburbs of major metropolitan cities, etc. He went on to say that it seemed to him that graduates of these institutions should endeavor to live not so close together and instead, to spread by their mere existence their knowledge and experience to far flung places.
Central Maine is not exactly far flung, at least in terms of its geographic relationship to Massachusetts, but there are certainly times when it feels very far away and very different from the land of my childhood and young adulthood, particularly the latter. Where I live and work now is a far cry from Cambridge, Massachusetts.
While I don’t miss the traffic and the inconveniences of living in a crowded place, I loved living in Cambridge for the time I was at the Div School and then after, almost ten years altogether. I probably remember that casual remark by Dean Thiemann because just as he said it, I likely started to feel a twinge of shame, as I was hoping to find a way to stay and live in one of those clusters of the privileged and well educated myself.
Over the almost twenty years I’ve lived in Central Maine, I’ve come to like very much many aspects of living in this little corner of the United States. It’s been a great place to raise our children and we have a wonderful community of friends. And, there’s not a lot of traffic.
Still, from time to time, I wistfully wonder how life would be if I still lived in or near Cambridge. There are moments when I’ll admit that I can’t help but feel a little in the way of uncharitable derision for some of the ways of Central Mainers. A good remedy to those moments is the thought that, even though it wasn’t my plan, I’ve done my own small part to fulfill the expectations of the former Dean of the Div School. Though it hadn’t been the plan that I had had for myself, I recognized its merit from the moment he said it.
Now, I hold onto it.
It’s not that only people with degrees from elite places are smarter and cleverer than everyone else (in fact, many of them are not so much), but I learned a great deal from receiving an education from a place like Harvard Divinity School. I gained important knowledge and experience that prepared me for the work that I do. I also learned quite a lot about religious experiences and traditions very different from my own. Perhaps most important of all, though, was the environment, the community, at HDS and Harvard in general—full of smart and engaging minds asking hard questions and considering, on a regular basis, complicated matters of human life.
I’m still fortunate to have plenty of smart people in my life, but most of them are not among my colleagues in ministry. While there are a few minister friends with whom I can wrestle with deep and unanswerable questions, there aren’t a lot of them. I miss that. There is no broad community, no real “environment,” where my ministry colleagues and I engage deeply with significant questions and matters of life and faith on a regular basis. Occasionally, I try to insert some sort of question or discussion topic that might lead to somewhere beyond the normal small talk, but it never seems to get very far.
I don’t know if, by my mere existence here, that I’m doing anything constructive to raise the level of debate, discussion or dialogue. But, I hope that I am. It may not feel like much, but I continue to plant those seeds and do the best I can not to despair of my professional exile, but to embrace the challenge it presents.