Lately I've been feeling very jaded about Madison. Like everything they've ever said when I was growing up is true. I didn't really start noticing it until I was an adult, but when I would tell people I was from Madison, they would sort of roll their eyes, and say "Oh, you're from Madison." The word "Madison" was often said in a very stuffy voice. The kind of voice that says in a British accent (because these sorts of things are always in British accents), "Oh how do you do, I'm Tripp. This is my wife, Muffy. We've just gotten back from traveling the world on our yacht, but dear me, we can't stay to talk- it's time for our tennis match. Then Muffy will be working on planning our daughter Mitzy's catillion, and I'll be courting a cigar with the gents at the club. So ta-ta, old chum!"
Eventually, I felt like I got it- Madison is a wealthy town. And I'd even join in on the odd joke here and there. "Yeah, they were going to film the movie Stepford Wives here. It's a shame they didn't- it would have saved them a fortune in hiring extras!"
On our wedding night, my husband and I shared a bottle of champagne. When we couldn't finish the bottle, and being ever-frugal, I made a "cork" out of wet, wadded tissue to keep the carbonation in the bottle for later. My husband joked that instead of a molotov cocktail, I had made a "Madison cocktail." "Except", he continued, "that a true Madison cocktail would have wadded up $100 bills stuck in the top." We both laughed. I had learned to role with the jabs.
But when I'd talk to friends from high school who had come back to live in the area, I often found myself feeling sad. Because I kept hearing how they felt like they had made a mistake coming back- that they wanted to leave.
"There's too much 'keeping up with the Joneses' here. I don't want my kid to have to feel like s/he's gotta drive a Porsche to fit in."
"I feel like I have to justify to people that I bought a small house- it wasn't because we couldn't afford a bigger one, we just wanted a smaller one! Why do I feel like I have to explain that?"
"I'd been working out in the gardens all day and stopped by the grocery store on the way home. I felt so embarrassed because I was dirty from work. It wasn't like I was at a fancy restaurant or anything- I was at the grocery store, for god's sake- and I still felt that way!"
I'd listen well, and just look at them sadly, trying to talk them out of their desire to leave. I'd tell them that if everyone like us left, then there'd really be no room for people like us here- the old schoolers. The salt of the land. The down-to-earth. But I still didn't fully empathize because I didn't see what they saw.
Then I think I started to. When my son was born, I wanted to connect and meet new friends who not only had children my son's age, but who lived in the same town as us. I met some great new mom's through the Mommy-and-Me groups at the library. But in my effort to show the world that I wasn't the "typical" Madisonite, that I wasn't the rich housewife who's husband worked and played golf while I got to stay home and raise our children and judge people, I think I came off as abrasive and alienated them.
I'd do things like talk about how wonderful my recent wedding had been- how my husband and I had put our heart and soul into our wedding and made such heart-felt, cost-conscious choices, and had hand-made so many things that our entire wedding came out to under $6,000! Later, I felt like maybe they were thinking "that's not exactly something I'd brag about."
I'd talk about how great a town Madison is. "But you have to be very careful in raising your children. You can't let them think that this is what the whole world is like. You have to let them know they are lucky", I'd say, remembering how many of my classmates had overdosed on drugs because they had too much money and not enough supervision, or those who grew up into self-important, narcissistic personalities. As alternative examples, I'd tout the names of my classmates who had taken all the privilege they were raised with here in Madison and had gone out to create privilege for others. I talked about my friend who went to Africa in the peace corps, or my friends who rode bikes across the country to raise awareness and buy bicycles for the poor. Kid's from Madison could do great things if properly guided, I sagely advised.
I think maybe I was a little too passionate. A little too desperate. A little too jaded, maybe? I was torn and conflicted. I loved that I was back living in Madison- a town that I had worked so hard to come back to, just as my mother had worked so hard to bring her children back to raise them in a place that "has beaches in the summer, nearby skiiing in the winter, fall foliage, and is just two hours from New York City and Boston"- the perfect little town with a cute main street and rich in history. A place my family had been calling home since the early 1900's.
And yet, I didn't want to be "Madison". Because according to most of the area outside Madison, the fact that I lived in Madison must have meant I was snobbish, arrogant, rich, rude and highly judgemental. So I fought against the stereotype, demonstrating my insecurities in front of newcomers to Madison who had no idea of the inner conflicts that I, as a long-time resident of Madison, was having. I don't think I made any real friends. And when I'd see these mothers later at public events, the interactions were polite, but awkward.
I began to feel more insecure. My high school friends must be right about the way they felt. Maybe times had changed, and maybe the new people were incredibly judgemental. Speaking of high school, my new-found insecurities were surprisingly reminiscent of those I had felt when I was a teenager. Wasn't I supposed to have outgrown this? For the first time, I began feeling like I had made a mistake coming back. I wasn't making friends with new people, and I was now even nervous that I'd see people I went to high school with because my insecurities were just running wild.
I began to act very negative about being in Madison. I began to wish I wasn't living in the house my great-grandfather had built by hand, so that I could pack up and move. I began to feel like I didn't really belong here. My family wasn't rich enough: even though we'd put out the china and silver for the big family holidays, see shows on Broadway, and take vacations to lavish resorts, we don't have a mansion, nor a three-car garage. My art style wasn't classic enough: all the members of the Madison Art Society painted portraits and landscapes with oils and pastels. I do childrens illustrations with markers and Photoshop. My husband wasn't conservative enough in his interests: instead of golfing and going to the pub, he prefers board games and science fiction. My own interests didn't match the other moms, either: I prefer the same hobbies my husband does! I wasn't "mom" enough: all the mothers I met got to stay home with their children while their husbands worked. My husband and I have careers which keep us far away from our son for almost twelve hours each day. I wasn't [enter mainstream religion here] enough: I'm one of those fringe spirituality, tree-hugging hippy-types. Everywhere I looked, it just felt like I didn't measure up. That I was the "odd man out". Yeah, it was feeling like high school all over again.
Then I went to the Meigs Festival at Hammonnassett with my husband and son.
I can't even express how much fun I had every second I was there. My toddler learned to crush kernels of corn using stones, the way the Indians had. My husband practiced chucking a spear using an atlatl. I learned to felt plush toys and decorations from a farm-owner and fellow beekeeper, and I even made a new friend in her. My husband and I geeked out over the cool collection of fossils that a couple had brought, listening in amazement as they told us way more about fossils than we had ever known.
I saw a representative of a Native American tribe lead an opening ceremony that mirrored my own spirituality, and I saw people listening in respect and reverence without judgement. I saw the Madison Shellfish Commission, and reflected on my love of clamming and beaching with my family in the summer. I saw the Madison Historical Society, and I bought a book on Madison's history. I saw the Friends of Hammonassett and the Meigs Point Nature Center represented, showcasing all the work they do to connect people with the world around them. All around, I saw nature lovers, history buffs, artists, and people who felt immense connection to the land surrounding them. I sampled free food from local vendors, and even had lunch at one of Madison's infamous food trucks.
That afternoon, I was back to feeling like I was where I belonged. That I was right to have pushed and pleaded with my husband to return to my little village by the sea. High on my love for my town, I dived into the book I had bought from the Madison Historical Society, cherishing each anecdote, marveling over each morsel of history, and having more than one "eureka!" moment as I connected a story form the past with a landmark of the present.
And the one thing I kept seeing occur again and again throughout history? People bickered. People judged each other. Factions split, and sometimes re-merged with each other down the road. It was all the same sorts of interactions we see today.
There were conflicts over budgets, building locations, and domestic disputes between neighbors. When "the summer people" began coming to Madison, the old farmers, fishermen and ship-builders were irritated by the changes the newcomers brought. The snobbish stubbornness of the old agricultural folk then may even mirror the snobbishness some people perceive from the new executive-types that populate our town now. The "new money" people irritated the "old money" people (and vice versa!); and just because a man was your neighbor did not mean he was your friend. The very same hard-nosed, shrewd, fiscally conservative people that existed then still exist today. So do the same rabble-rousers that don't much mind which side they're on in a debate, as long as they get to cause a good stir. In fact every stereotype that one can pigeonhole another into was alive and well long before any of us came to have our day in this town. Someday, someone will read in a history book about the Battle of the Food Trucks, and chuckle over it- an island of conflicting human interests in a sea of otherwise banal historical facts.
My friends from high school tell me "Madison isn't like it used to be. It's changed, and it's time for me and my family to move on." My mother, a teacher in the Madison school systems for many years argues "the same sort of people have always been here, having the same sorts of conflicts." And me, I've questioned things, but lately, I tell myself I do belong here, as much as anyone does, even if I sometimes wonder where exactly I fit in.
Reflecting on my hometown's history, and the many-faceted aspects of its present-day character, I see the same human interactions, squabbles, and trials that occur any time a group of people come together to work towards a common goal, in this case, the formation, running and day-to-day living of a little town called Madison. All of us will still be here long after we are gone. The crochety and the conservative, the weird ones and the wild ones, the newcomers and the old timers. Madison is a town full of stereotypes. Just like any other town that ever was, or ever will be.