Where I grew up in Wales, my family lived next door to a man who had been kicked in the head by a mule. He had been an artillerist with the Desert Rats in Africa when the beast of burden nailed him. He was never quite right after that. Whenever I encountered him in the side alley that ran parallel to our back street, he would be standing there like the Colossus of Wales, arms akimbo, his face hidden under the dark brim of a hat that had seen better days. He never uttered a word. Just stared. I was running before you could say, “Hoch, hoch, Mein Gott, what a bloody rotten lot are the ragtime infantry.”
I recall this memory because it has a strange bearing on my decision to live in Maine. No, I’m not saying that the sterile offspring of a horse and a donkey has clopped me in the noggin. And neither have I emptied a large caliber gun of hot shells. But I’ve been struck.
I think that to actively engage with the place you live, you have to be slightly off-kilter. It takes more than the weekly run to the grocery store or the reading of a magazine or the occasional fetish for lobster followed by a lighthouse binge. You’ve got to bring deviled-eggs to the picnic. In other words, you’ve got to have a decidedly unconventional character. And why?
Well, let’s take my next-door neighbor from Wales as an anecdote. Day after day in the lion-dust gold of hot sand, he was shoving shells. Risking his life to blow up the Desert Fox’s Afrika Corps. Then he gets kicked in the head. Shipped off home to Old Blighty where he spends the rest of his days putting the fear of God into me in a back alley.
His life changed, you see. Because of a stray hoof, my neighbor got another chance at life. Sure some of it had the texture of a photo still from Young Frankenstein and the man’s mental faculties gave me the impression of a steam locomotive in the age of nuclear reactors, but, still, the curmudgeon was alive and not pushing up the daisies or, to have my idiom geographically correct, African ocotillo.
Being struck by Maine isn’t that dissimilar. Except it is a chord in the deep chambers of the heart that are struck, not the head. Maybe it’s sentimental, romantic, or even risible, but what made me easily uproot from the Midwest and travel here was aberrant behavior, a sense of the reckless. I think that a decision to move somewhere, anywhere, begins in a liminal place; an emotional state that takes an obsessive desire so that it gets fulfilled. For me, I needed a place that in a way resembled my homeland of Wales but was also not its doppelganger. A place that was welcoming of those who feel they don’t belong but have a need to be somewhere where they fit in, however awkwardly.
It was a whim, really. Not premeditated with comparisons about the cost of living or income or all the other trappings of practicality. Just a deep inhaling of the idea that life is elsewhere. And so Maine is. It’s elsewhere. It’s on the periphery of all the other locales that lure inhabitants but where the expectations live up perfectly to the reality and apex at dull.
So I must thank that tetchy mule. Thank that old codger who got kicked in the head and scared me at every opportunity. Without them, I’d never have come to the realization that to live well may mean to take risks and make decisions that others might deride.