Friday, July 12, 2024

News and Ideas Worth Sharing

Where We Are: South County voices from late October 2022

The idea for this series was inspired by a conversation with Jill Graham about an unrelated topic. Jill has found that the old ways of creating community aren’t working, so she’s creating new ones. She’s helping us open back up to each other. I decided to ask other local people how they are doing, what troubles them, and what gives them hope.

The news is bad, unavoidable, relentless. For many of us, our relationships, finances, housing, mental health, physical health, and/or work situations are unstable. The pandemic bred mistrust in us, created islands of our houses. Now the world’s opened back up, but many of us find that we have not.

The idea for this series was inspired by a conversation with Jill Graham about an unrelated topic. Jill has found that the old ways of creating community aren’t working, so she’s creating new ones. She’s helping us open back up to each other. I decided to ask other local people how they are doing, what troubles them, and what gives them hope. This first set of six first-person excerpts from longer interviews have been edited and condensed for the sake of clarity.

The Rev. Jill Graham, of the First Congregational Church of Sheffield:

The Rev. Jill Graham

We are still reeling from the pandemic. We have no shared vision or purpose, but we’re hungry for connection. I want to capitalize on that hunger, come up with ways to bring people together. There’s my new goal. A new goal is not sitting in a pew. The Episcopal Church and Congregational Church, pre-pandemic—BC as we say, ‘Before COVID’—we had Beer and Hymns at Big Elm. We set up these long tables in the back in the brewing room and we would share a meal and raise money for some nonprofit and sing hymns. It was just pure joy, just fun. And then for two years we didn’t do it.

Oddly enough, the last one we’d done before this past Friday night was February 2020. Who knew what was coming in the next three weeks? And so last Friday night, we were back. Tables were packed. There was lots of singing, you do a conga line to one of the more snazzy tunes. It was just fun. This coming Sunday, we’re doing a breakfast church. Sunday breakfast church, so there’s no worship in the sanctuary. We’re going to sit out back. Have breakfast, have table conversation, worship at the table. And that’s what makes me happy.

It seems to be touching something in people that they have been missing. The more I can figure out ways to bring people together the more I think I’m going in the right direction, and that gives me hope. When people leave, there’s a changed spirit, and if I can capitalize on that a little bit, I’m doing something right.

Regi Wingo, team leader and outreach educator at the Elizabeth Freeman Center:

Regi Wingo. Photo courtesy of Regi Wingo.

Personally, I’m in a good spot. I am living out in Alford, I’ve recently gotten into beekeeping, and my partner and I have a couple of pigs. We’ve grown some mushrooms. So that part has been awesome. A lot of this pandemic time for me has been about reconnecting with the land, getting back in touch and slowing down and living life without this need for the constant consuming. Go out, go to the movies, go to the bar, go get dinner, go do this. Sit on your porch, read a book, listen to the oak trees.

There was a breakup that led me to moving back to South County, then the housing crisis here led me to deep despair and feeling like, as a single dad, there was no way I was ever going to be able to afford to get my own place again. Then through fortune, I ended up out in this cottage with a bunch of other folks. There’s a bunch of properties and we all sort of cohabitate. We have a public space, a gym.

But it is not okay out there, even the state of Great Barrington. All this new developing on Main Street and the ridiculous condos no one can afford over the Co-op, the fact that you can still drive around on the back roads and see tens of houses that are foreclosed on, empty, or been left to become dilapidated. You know, but it’s cool that we got a ski place on Main Street where you can buy a $400 Parka. I don’t know how anyone makes this make sense, because the math certainly isn’t mathing for me.

Tess Fedell, EMT with Great Barrington Ambulance Squad:

I’ve rethought things due to the seriousness of a lot of situations that I’ve seen, a lot of lives ended early, things like that. When it all comes down to it, to me, it’s about quality time with your family because who really cares at the end of the day what you do for work if you’re running and miserable and you don’t have that reward of spending quality time with people that you love.

I really appreciate the opportunity to be able to help people. Every time we have an emergency, it’s not the best moment in someone’s life. So if you can soften that blow in any way possible, I always try to do that and make a really crappy situation as good as I can, to add comfort when someone’s having maybe the worst day they’ve ever had.

It gives me hope when you do have a situation like an emergency, and you see how many people are willing to go out of their way to go above and beyond to help someone else when you think maybe things are hopeless. You see a very honest, random act of kindness that they don’t have to do but they do just because. That’s really nice.

Tess Fedell. Photo courtesy of Tess Fedell.

Mandy Victor, real estate agent, Stonehouse Properties:

We’re trying to help all these less fortunate people with affordable housing. Driving by St. James Food Pantry makes me so sad, because the lines get bigger. I often think about what it’s like for the people who go there, in their exposure in public to have to do food assistance.

Mandy Victor. Photo courtesy of Mandy Victor.

One of the things our small town here needs to really focus on is to summon big cannabis money. Tax revenue could be dedicated to getting some kind of search team company involved to bring some kind of businesses here that could provide a middle class income. Maybe there’s a way with the tech center in Pittsfield, to set up some kind of network. I think there’s an opportunity for us here to save ourselves, you know?

It’s my understanding that SUNY Albany jumped on the bandwagon with courses for tech jobs way back, and because there’s a built-in workforce with the graduates, high tech companies have been building up around that area. That’s what’s driving Hudson, N.Y. That’s why that that little community has changed. I went to a closing over there years ago, and the entire main street, Warren Street, was boarded up.

I grew up in the Berkshires. There were worker bees, middle bees, and the upper echelon. Pretty much everybody had a job, everybody in their community was cared for. They didn’t have a lot of blighted property. The world wasn’t perfect, but you know, we manufactured in this country. And you know what wasn’t there? This resentment. The hatred of people who are affluent, and I get it because when you’re struggling to feed yourself, and there’s no end of the tunnel, there’s no light there for these people because there’s not the opportunity to be able to move forward. It’s either haves or have nots, for the most part.

Andy Naylor, owner of Pine Glen Landscaping:

The business that we’re in seemed to be almost untouched by COVID. It was good for business. We were busy through the whole thing. A lot of people were home, around, a lot of people were interested in doing things. They were looking at things and wanting to get things done. It may have been some of the best business we’ve ever had.

Andy Naylor. Photo courtesy of Andy Naylor.

I would say my children [give me hope], just watching them. They are at a stage in their lives [22 and 25] where they’re starting to flourish, so it’s just great to see that. They’re both in Portland, Maine. I don’t know how they found their way there, but they love it there.

[Regarding how Great Barrington has changed] I do understand there has to be changes, but I think this town changed a little too quick for as small as it is. I don’t see any people I recognize anymore. These stores, I don’t see anything they have to offer me.

I just feel fortunate to be where I am now in Sheffield. It’s kind of a retreat to get away from Great Barrington. Lot of neighbors. We’re a pretty tight neighborhood, so it’s really nice. I try to keep an eye on the wildlife. Since I was young in the Berkshires there’s so many things that have come back. It’s nice to see black bears. So many birds. Wood ducks, different types of hawks. There’s a variety of hawks I’ve never noticed before. Owls. Fisher cats. I don’t remember seeing those things back in the 80s and 90s, even the 70s. You didn’t see things like we’re seeing now.

Laura Didyk, artist and writer, tenant in Mahaiwe Block:

For me, I guess it’s more about ‘How am I staying afloat?’ I’ve been in a place for a while where I’ve known I’m going to have to move out because of the sale of my building and without being fully financially prepared following the effects of the pandemic on my freelance business. So I’ve remedied that by spending more time outside. That’s been surprisingly helpful. Every single time I go out, I have some moment—and on a good day, it’s really long moment, like, a good half hour, or an hour—of complete awe, being amongst the trees. It’s surprising because nature hasn’t always reached me that way. I’ve always wanted it to, but I didn’t know how to make it happen. Not sure what changed, but now I can rely on it, you know?

Laura Didyk. Photo by Laura Didyk.

I’ve also been part of two poetry book groups, and have been going to more literary readings both online and out in the world, and just generally starting to get out and do more things.

I’ve taken a couple museum trips. [There was an exhibit at the Clark by] a Japanese artist, Yuji Agematsu. He collected all these little tiny pieces of trash—he calls it detritus—and made mini-sculptures using resin inside the exterior plastic from cigarette packs. He did it regularly from July to September, I think, of 2021. So the exhibit was this roomful of these weird, sometimes gross, but always cool, modern sculptures made of litter. Feels really appropriate somehow.

I’m also writing a lot with other people, doing generative writing, where we write together and then read our work out loud. I host accountability groups on Zoom. One of my favorite things that I do regularly is get on Zoom with my sisters, who are out in California, and we have sister dance parties. We rotate the DJ responsibilities and just get down on it. That’s been a really sweet and therapeutic thing.

Please reach out to sheelaattheedge@gmail.com if you or someone you know would like to be interviewed for the Where We Are series.

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