As the plane descended from the ash-colored clouds over Burlington, Vermont, I looked over the blunted orange and dark green leafed trees and smiled. It wouldn’t be the most stunning fall colors I had ever seen in my home state thanks to the recent heavy rain, but it was enough to stoke the fires of remembrance. The first breath I took in outside the small airport was crisp and clean, heavy with fall dampness, and filled with so much space. Each successive breath in and out created more internal room than I have felt after so many years of living in crowded cities and working in busy hospitals. I had three weeks off to catch my breath, slow down, and listen to my inner knowing before deciding on my next path forward.
This trip back to New England came not only during seasonal change, but also at a time of professional change, a shift away from a work environment no longer healthy for me, toward what can only be a more balanced future. I had already planned this trip to see my stepmother for her 80th birthday and was so delighted it came during the Vermont autumn color burst, something my soul has missed since leaving the area over thirty years ago. Fortunately, I was able to combine my visit with a short retreat that included some of my dearest sober friends who work in healthcare, connections I was blessed to make on ZOOM screens during COVID lockdowns. My vacation just so happened to coincide with the end of my most recent employment contract, so it really was a transition time for me, the leaves of my old life falling to the ground while the buds of new directions started harnessing their potential.
I slowly drove through my hometown Rutland with my best friend, as stories spilled out of the street corners, childhood homes, local parks, and scarred trees. I visited the same brick hospital I was born in, the elementary school I walked a mile to and from with my sisters, and the many fields or woods I later partied in with my high school classmates. Outside of schoolwork and athletics, there wasn’t much to do growing up in small city in Vermont, so many weekend nights were spent driving around the dusty back roads looking for the bonfire keg party.
I drove up the mountain dirt road to the old Tamarac Notch Girl Scout Camp and noticed it had been made into a small park with a nature trail. I photographed crumbling stone chimneys peeking through the remaining yellow leaves on the maple trees, reminding me of the first scary nights at camp when I was in elementary school, or much later, the crazy teenage Friday the 13th nights with my wild girlfriends. As I strolled through the young deciduous trees supported by the occasional elder pine, I realized that I too have grown up, that the gray mantle of my dark curls are like the soft underbrush covering where the fire pit used to be, steadily transforming the forest floor.
The landscape of my youth has changed as much as the Girl Scout camp. The brown house at 163 Stratton Road where I spent the first eight years of my life no longer supports a family, having first been morphed into a dentist office and now, a treatment center for children with autism. The house was so small, so different from what I remembered as a toddler and first grader, when the long hallway to my upstairs bedroom at the end seemed miles away from the safety of my parents’ room. The backyard was still expansive, leading up to the wood forest where my sisters and I once built a tee-pee like dwelling, though the maple tree we once had boards nailed into for a make-shift tree house was sadly missing. My elementary school is now a high school and middle school for children with behavioral challenges, and my high school has been transformed into a middle school. The brick bones are still there right along with the ghost like memories of recesses playing four square or tether ball as a second grader, or the senior sign day of high school when my friends and I stole signage from all over the city to plaster the front of the school in celebration of our upcoming graduation.
What I did not expect from my visit to Vermont was the sense of peace I felt, despite seeing a city suffering from closed businesses and a vacant mall or from hearing about a violent shooting and drug related crime. My hometown was not immune to decay, much like the Girl Scout Camp, and yet I could still see the beauty everywhere: in the Chafee Art Gallery exhibits, in the colorful murals on buildings, in the green parks studded with the Rutland Garden Club bushes and flowers, on the dark red doors of the Episcopalian Church, and on the painted benches in the gazebo park. Change was everywhere, externally and internally, with the gifts snuggled up right next to the losses.