Ben Doyle is a Community and Economic Development Specialist for USDA Rural Development. A former English teacher and arts administrator, Ben lives in Montpelier with his wife, Angela, and two children, Salvador and Rosemary.
About a decade ago, an English teacher friend of mine ruined the 4th of July for me. At the end of the school year, my first as a teacher, I'd expressed excitement about the languorous yet productive summer ahead: the summer I would finally turn page 1,174 of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, paint my house, and spend a week on the Long Trail.
Almost 400 years ago, after nearly dying from typhus, the great English poet John Donne wrote that:
"...all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another."
I’m a proud graduate of the Sutton Graded School in Sutton, Vermont. Relatively speaking, there aren’t that many of us. In 1990, I was one of 8 graduates. The graduation was held in a church basement, and in addition to diplomas, the young men, one of whom had driven there that day, were given shaving cream. By the time I made it out of Mr. Belanger’s 8th grade class, I’d spent most of my life at the school.
When I was a sophomore in high school, I stole a canoe paddle from another kid’s locker. I don’t know why - I didn’t even have a canoe. It was just one of the many, many idiotic things I did when I was 16.
One of my favorite books is very short, but it’s about another book that is quite long. Isaiah Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox is a brief study of Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace, which ostensibly depicts Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. What it’s really about, of course, is the relationship between individual human agency and the inexorable, ultimately unknowable forces that determine the course of history.
In 1967, exactly one year to the day before he was assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King gave a speech entitled “Beyond Vietnam.” In it, King said that “we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
Recently, employees of a large internet retailer specializing in books filed a class action lawsuit against the company for unfair compensation practices. The company, in an attempt to prevent employee theft at their “fulfillment centers” requires that workers undergo anti-theft screening procedures before taking a lunch break or leaving for the day. The employees are not compensated for this time (which they say can average anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes twice a day) so they sued for unpayed wages.
When I worked as a high school English teacher, a favorite poem to share with students was “Among School Children,” by William Butler Yeats. It’s complex, dealing with everything from the loss of innocence, to the relationship between human experience and art. And it famously ends this way:
O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer Are you the leaf, the blossom, or the bole O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, How can we know the dancer from the dance?
Vermont’s new universal recycling law, the first phase of which went into effect this past summer, says that by the year 2020, anything we throw away that can be composted or recycled must be. It can’t end up in a landfill. That’s a good thing; but it’s gotten me feeling a bit nostalgic because I’m old enough to remember the golden age of the Vermont dump.
This summer I plan to finish painting my house and it won’t be a moment too soon. When I started scraping, it was just Angela and me and our dog Sammy. Now that I’m almost finished, Sammy is long gone and we have two kids, one of whom is old enough to recite the Robert Frost Poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” from memory.
Everyone loves an orphan. Books and movies are filled with plucky urchins like Little Orphan Annie or the Boxcar Children that carry on, in what Charles Dickens called, the universal struggle. And orphans were Dickens’ specialty. He gave us Oliver Twist, Little Nell, and David Copperfield whose story has one of the great opening lines in literature: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”
This spring, a developer tore down my grandmother’s house in Lyndonville to make way for a gas station. Technically, it wasn’t my grandmother’s house; she died a number of years ago and the house had been sold a couple of times since then. Throughout the years, however, I continued to think of it as my grandmother’s house. Across the street from the Bag Balm factory and down the block from the bookstore my family ran for almost 30 years, it was where we celebrated my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary, the house that both of them died in.