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A Common Exchange
In Massachusetts

I was drawn to the Berkshire Hilltowns almost twenty-five years ago for many reasons -- by the woods, the meadows, the general store, and most importantly the sense of comfort and place, of community that I felt living in a small town. I liked learning peopleís names and their childrenís names. Going to the post office involved smiling and chatting with several people. I liked the eye contact that people were not afraid to take time to make. Most important, I got the sense that because people knew each otherís names (and sometimes maybe even a little too much of their business), it helped them to be present for each other in a special, neighborly way -- they cared about each other.

I was shown this in many ways. One night I was awakened by the desperate screams of a mother who lived way across the valley on the next ridge, whose house was burning. Her two babies died that night, despite the valiant efforts of our volunteer fire department. But, many of the townspeople came together to donate food and clothing, and a few weeks later the time and materials to build a new house; for me, that act of working together, of coming together to share the painful but healing task of rebuilding is what community is all about. This isn’t charity, but the sharing of experiences and talents and time in a manner that promotes dignity and empowerment for all individuals involved.

It was purely by accident that I met an elderly woman who taught me more about community than anyone I know. I was out horseback riding in the early spring on my favorite galloping road -- a long, straight, flat road, lined on either side by stone walls and twisted maples -- when I came upon an old hulking house that looked abandoned except for the many cats that flitted around the bushes. My eyes were pulled across the road to the orchard, and there I saw a vague form, bent over, moving slowly but determinedly along the edge of the woods -- someone who probably lived in the crumbling house which, when I turned to look at it again, suddenly revealed a cheerful splash of red in an upstairs window -- geraniums! …vibrant red geraniums that looked like they might push themselves right through the pane of glass! I knew I must meet this person!

It took some time because Miss Sarah had been living alone for so long she had almost forgotten how to talk. I began to visit her regularly, and slowly we became friends. We made an arrangement -- she was a fabulous gardener and I was an avid beginner, so she let me help around the house in return for learning her gardening secrets, gleaned from her eighty-odd years of working and planting the same soil year after year. She taught me about patience, about taking time to do things right, about caring in a special way for another person …. and about exchanging skills and friendship, expecting no more than just that -- a common exchange.

There were other people who were involved in Miss Sarah’s life. A neighbor got her groceries every week for untold years. Another neighbor came by to till her garden each spring. People would come to her now overgrown fields to pick blueberries and leave pints on her doorstep. After some years she began to have ulcers on her legs, and two friends and I would take turns attending to her dressing changes. At first I was hesitant to ask for their help, but it soon became clear that they were trilled to know her and happy to be involved, and for almost three years we were able to manage her daily care. I hoped that one day I would find her quietly still in her own house -- the place where she had been born, and where she had lived her entire life -- but it wasn’t meant to be. The time came when it was decided that she could no longer care for herself, and she was placed in a nursing home a mile from her home … and I brought her flowers from her garden until she died at 99.

I remember Miss Sarah because over the years it became clear to me that our friendship was perfect because it involved a mutual exchange of support and skills. We each had something to offer the other -- Miss Sarah shared her gardening expertise, her stories of our beloved town, and her dry Yankee wit. I was able to offer her my strong, young limbs and eager ears. Each empowered the other, each was both giver and receiver -- it was a fine swap! But there was, above all, the honor of being able to witness the unfolding of time in another human life, and to be part of the journey to its end.

We'll tell you what we're doing here... then maybe you'll tell us what you're doing there.

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