Since 1979, the state has nurtured my intellect in ways unimaginable prior to moving here.
The justifiable umbrage taken by Mainers online, on air and in print at the recent Maine-bashing (too much beer and flannel, for starters) New York Post opinion piece led this dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker and longtime Maine resident to a different response: I pondered how we determine whether a place suits us or not.
We moved to Brunswick in 1979, when I joined the Bowdoin College psychology department. Our return to the Northeast was welcome after five years of doctoral study at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, followed by a year of clinical-psychology internship in the Texas Medical Center.
Barbara S. Held is Barry N. Wish professor of psychology and social studies emerita at Bowdoin College and a resident of Brunswick.
With no distractions, Nebraska was perfect for graduate work. Hailing from the Bronx, I love the buzz of Manhattan: world-class art museums, Broadway theater, the New York City Ballet – the stuff that feeds my soul.
Lincoln, Nebraska, offered none of this: 500 miles from a city worthy of that descriptor. We tried for a weekend city-vibe at an Omaha hotel, only to find a Nebraska hairdressers convention where stylists with mile-high bleached-blond hair made women look less attractive.
We left our only Cornhusker football game at half-time. Yet we couldn’t escape the locust-like invasion of red and white Cadillacs on home-game weekends, whose horns blasted Nebraska’s fight song, “There Is No Place Like Nebraska.” Indeed.
My hopes for urbanity in Houston were dashed on arrival. Unbearably steamy from May through September. Even our parakeet suffered – when I took him to work, he indicated distress in the 30-second walk from our air-conditioned apartment to my air-conditioned car. Huge alligator gars (fish with scary alligator heads) in the streets post-floods didn’t amuse.
Which brings me to Maine. The Bowdoin job description seemed like a good enough fit. Just a two-hour drive from Boston and a one-hour flight from New York City. The coastal scenery enticed, though my ideal nature is Central Park, where nature is bounded by that great city and so can’t get out of control.
Having attended large state universities for undergraduate and graduate study, I was a stranger to elite liberal arts colleges, when, in the 1970s, all-male institutions like Bowdoin began enrolling women. My husband, who knew this world well, guided me. He was especially helpful at the 1979 new-faculty reception, where the professors (male) welcomed him, while their wives welcomed me. David explained that I was the new professor, whereas he was busy fixing up the apartment (he didn’t mention finishing up his dissertation).
At the following year’s new-faculty reception, I saw my distinguished philosopher friend Edward Pols. I had just returned in a state of apoplexy from a psychology conference at which the death of truth was proclaimed, in the postmodern spirit of English departments. Ed gave me a therapeutic tutorial in philosophy of science, where I found my scholarly calling in taking up questions like, Are our hopes, beliefs, fears and desires real stuff in the world? These kinds of questions have kept me up at night, dominating my writings in the four decades since.
Would I have discovered this calling had I not lunched daily at the Bowdoin student union with humanities and natural-science professors who broadened my scholarly horizons vastly? I suspect that discovery would have been less likely had I taught at a large institution (like New York University), where academic departments are many times the size of Bowdoin’s, thereby reducing opportunities for regular informal conversation among faculty from disparate disciplines.
Because my dream of living again in New York City hasn’t (yet) been realized, I go home for fixes frequently. With Big-Apple nourishment, I return to Maine with renewed conviction that any place where you discover and develop a treasured quality is a good place to be, even without bright city lights.
Novelist John O’Hara reportedly said that Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is perfect for writing, because nothing interrupts your train of thought. No matter: Maine has nurtured my intellect superbly, in ways unimaginable prior to moving here.
Although locals will always view me as “from away,” Maine is the place where I came home to myself – a homecoming surpassing all others.
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