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Why Community Matters

Why Community Matters
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You know this because you live here, but there’s no more beautiful and dynamic place in all of New England than the Burlington region. Especially now: the flowers in bloom, the lake warming, the walkers, the bicyclists, the dogs all trotting alongside; people strolling, cafés full, street performers filling the air with music. From the outside, it could be so easy to think there can be no trouble here in paradise, not here in early summer.

But you know better.

Every day we cannot escape the image of oil gushing into our seas, threatening the well-being of all of us. A rupture that seemingly cannot be stopped. Every day we see oil-covered birds and mammals; we see distraught residents of the Gulf weeping because their entire way of life is coming undone before their eyes. And we all know that for every pelican or dolphin that’s rescued, there must be hundreds, thousands, that slip away unseen. For every fisherman or shopkeeper or hotel worker we see interviewed, we know there are tens of thousands who are suffering with no one to hear them. As their lives unravel, we can only wonder what the effect will be for years ahead.

So I think of what you do here. You see the fractured families, the ruptured lives, the danger when that anger and helplessness spill onto the shores of your beautiful towns. You see the costs when kids are in trouble with seemingly no way out. You see what can happen when a family implodes, when alcohol or drugs invade lives, when an unwanted pregnancy throws a life into a tailspin, when people become prisoners inside their own demons. And yet you’re drawn to this hard, hard work. Why? Because you’ve seen what can happen when the hopeless gain hope; you’ve seen what can happen when you stop the rupture and start the mending. You’ve seen what can happen when you give voice to those who cannot articulate.

And somewhere you learned this truth: If you do not do this work, then who? You know more often than not that you’re giving a last chance to many.

You provide that rare and special glue, the unbreakable thread that mends people and, by extension, community. I should have known about you years ago, and I did not.

This small city, this county, this state, and our whole region is so fortunate to have all of you who give so many hours, so many sleepless nights. Because I know firsthand about the ripples: I know that when you change one person’s life for the good, it changes so many others. And when one life slips through, the damage can also spread through generations.

How do you do this? Work, yes; dedication, yes; sacrifice, yes. But I know your secret, too.

For 10 years I’ve taught magazine writing at the University of Massachusetts. The students come into the room that first evening, and they open their notebooks and think, I suppose, that I can teach them some magic way to become writers. I tell them I do have a secret. But it’s not what they think; it has nothing to do with writing strong leads or using verbs.

I hold up a notebook. I say it begins here: with what goes into those pages. And it begins with listening. I tell them to take a minute — to be silent and to think about the last time anyone ever truly and absolutely listened only to them. Not with background music, not with getting up and shifting around and interrupting. Just complete listening.

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