The rewards and responsibilities of hamlet living
Last night a friend called to tell my husband and me that, earlier that day, a mutual friend had died of a heart attack. We’d heard the ambulance siren—strange and troubling when you live in a place like Jay, with some 1,000 permanent residents. You can’t help wonder who that ambulance is steering toward.
The evening before, my husband and I had played a concert—me on violin, my husband on guitar—at our community theater on Jay’s village green. The man who had just passed away had booked our gig, as he had other ones in the past. He had set us up that night, jumped on the mic a couple of times to welcome us while nudging the crowd to join the nonprofit that puts on these shows. He was kind, as outgoing a guy as they come, and even more so that night because he was on a date with his lovely wife, a local powerhouse in her own right.
Everyone in our hamlet and the surrounding ones knew him and his sweet family. And I know that as I write, they’re wondering how that gaping space that he once occupied can ever be filled. A teensy community like ours is faces, after all, a collective of personalities that makes it what it is.
In Jay it’s almost impossible to be anonymous—folks will likely know you, at least know who you are, whether you want them to or not. But hamlet living also allows you the choice of how you’ll step forward: as a friendly neighbor or resident curmudgeon or as a doer, on this committee or as coach of that or the person who dresses up as Santa and makes the rounds to area kids on Christmas Eve just for fun, as our late friend did. You can shine as brightly as you’d like.
My son has a colorful area rug decorated with roads, houses, a school, store, library, river and what appears to be a park with a fountain. The idea is that kids zoom their Matchbox cars or whatever along the roads, pretend to stop here and there for groceries or to cross the bridges. The first thing my son did when he received the rug was to identify every place in our community: that one’s our house; there’s Devin’s, where we get gas and sandwiches; this is the village green, where we play tag and hear concerts; over there is the farm with alpacas. My son was orienting himself, repeating the information the same way he relishes stories of his birth, of how his dad and I met—the stuff that helps kids grasp just who they are.
I was raised in a college town two hours west of Jay, not far from the park. There were about 15 times as many people there as here—enough that, I suppose, I had the illusion of a surrounding bigness. At age 14 I’d borrowed a friend’s video membership card and rode my bike to the Blockbuster-type store with too many lights and aisles of tapes. When I presented my videos and then my friend’s card, I recall the clerk telling me, “This isn’t yours.” Yes it is, I insisted. I’ll never forget what she said. “No, I know who you are.”
It was the first time I realized the smallness of that place.
I’ve lived in cities and traveled across the world. To walk among seas of people is exhilarating and freeing. You can be whoever you want to be, maybe even start from scratch. Gnawing away alongside it, though, is a basic yearning—ego, perhaps—to be acknowledged, to be known.
I struggle with that dichotomy, especially when I consider the responsibilities that come with being part of something so intimate and vulnerable as an Adirondack community: you’re held accountable for being grumpy at the deli or not waving at the four corners or not raising your hand when it’s your turn to volunteer or bring a dish to pass. There are obligations in a place like this.
But then I remember our lost friend and his dedication to the people within this mountain-cradled river valley. Adirondack living means more than waking up to pretty scenery: you’re part of something fragile and vital—something fundamentally human.