Thursday, August 1, 2013

Reflections of Another Place

It's not that New Paltz doesn't occupy a unique niche in my consciousness. It's not that I'm getting old and everything reminds me of something from the past. It's not, I repeat not, that I'm hung up on the little town where I grew up, where "all the women were strong, all the men were good looking, and all the children were above average." The little town where I grew up--Fairhope, Alabama--was full of nice people, some of them smarter than others, but almost all were a little off-center.

After I left Fairhope for good I was so haunted by the way it used to be I began writing about it. I had written about it before on my blog "Finding Fair Hope," in which I often philosophied not only about the town but about the concept of combining "fair" and "hope" in one place. My first book of recollections was written in collaboration with Robert E. Bell, and entitled after his book The Butterfly Tree, which was a novel about some of the eccentrics he had run into in the town in the early 1950s. Our book Meet Me at The Butterfly Tree covered some of the same ground and included letters we had sent to one another. Bob never lost his fantasies about the town and I felt Meet Me at The Butterfly Tree was hostage to those fantasies, so I rewrote it and retitled it The Fair Hope of Heaven, alluding to the utopian vision of the founders of the town.

The Fairhope of my childhood was unpolished and bare, a haven for seekers of all kinds of dreams. It was attractively located on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, where sunsets were spectacular and by all rights dreams were destined to come true. Unfortunately, dreams so seldom do come true as we imagine them that many people over the years came to be disillusioned with Fairhope, and as they did so, they left, only to be replaced by a new crop of people with something else in mind entirely.

It is now highly decorated, highly focused, and highly productive. A horticulturist changes out flowers on every street corner on a regular basis, and establishments move in with alarming alacrity to capitalize on the town's tourist population. Events are frequent and well-organized, money is flowing in, and everybody claims to be ecstatically happy. This is something that would astound and probably not please the founders. I can only speak for myself. This is not an aspect of the new Fairhope that pleases me very much.

I miss the smattering of genuine eccentrics who used to walk around in odd clothes or with beards and/or bare feet. I miss the give-and-take of honest debate, the lifelong feuds and making-up. I miss the forums and the fire of conflict on philosophical subjects.

In New Paltz I see something similar to the Fairhope I recall. There is a contained smallness to the community, interesting offerings at the library and the local amateur theater. There is a scruffiness, an almost-bohemian savoir-faire.  Its resemblance to my childhood home is heartwarming to me. It has an authenticity that cannot be papered over by the influx of too much money and too little taste. I have fair hope for it.


  1. I love this. I'm an Army brat, and moved around a lot as a child, but have many of these same small town memories from the town where my grandparents lived and the one where my parents finally settled. I especially enjoy you seeing in New Paltz some of the same character, because I was tempted to think the whole world seems smaller and more intimate when you are a child, so it's delightful to know that doesn't account for all of it!

  2. New Paltz also has one of the best-regarded campuses of the State University of New York and an excellent public K-12 school system; easy access by bus, train or car to New York City (therefore, culturally-attuned, well-educated and generally politically liberal residents and visitors); and relatively high property taxes -- very high, compared with Fairhope. Plus it has cold winters. I think these things will discourage the "Boca Raton-ization" of New Paltz. (Though scrappy little New Paltz is out of reach, financially, for many local Ulster County folks.)

  3. A writer friend of mine (high school classmate) went to Bard College and he would have enjoyed this piece. Sadly, he died of cancer on his birthday a few years ago, just as his first novel was published and rising in the lists.