The clunky sound of metal hitting metal makes all the customers at The Wilderness turn to look out the restaurant’s big front glass windows and onto the Main Street of Colebrook, New Hampshire.
The waitress sprints out the front door, runs to one of the vehicle, which had been backing out of a parking space and into the path of a big, black truck that resembles almost all the big, black trucks people drive here in the northern tip of New Hampshire’s Great White Woods.
A driver’s getting out of the car. The waitress sprints back inside, clutching a young boy – less than a year old – to her chest. Her entire body’s shaking as she holds him, kissing his forehead, once, twice, too many times to count as his tiny bare feet dangle in the air, bumping against her waist.
“He was in the car. He was in the car.” Her words rush out so quickly as she walks in circles around the restaurant that’s really a diner. “He’s okay.”
“Is he okay?” An older man asks even though she just said it.
“He’s okay.” She says it like a mantra, repeating it over and over to make it true. “He’s okay.”
“It’ll all be okay,” the older woman with the older man says, warming the baby boy’s foot in her hands.
“Some day.” The server kisses her baby boy’s head one more time. “You got to have hope, right?”
“Soon,” the lady tells her. “Some day soon.”
It takes the server a half hour to stop shaking. She apologizes as she carries her baby around, taking orders, refilling water, bringing out food with her free hand. Even in that moment of extreme duress, this mom doesn’t stop. She won’t ever stop.
The Great North Woods
The Great North Woods of New Hampshire demands that you don’t stop. It’s a landscape carved in and out of mountains that requires grit to survive. It’s not a land of perfect white churches and 1950s-style New England movies featuring sleigh rides. It’s beautiful, yes, but the beauty is more rugged. The beauty is in the survival.
Presidential hopefuls come to the state, hoping to get a boost. But the state itself is pretty divided between the southern wealthier parts where I grew up and areas like here where houses put up their own make-shift billboards begging for change, struggling for hope.
As a kid in southern New Hampshire, I grew up poor in a town with rapidly increasing wealth. I had teachers tell me that there was no hope for me because my voice was ‘ridiculous.’ I had other teachers tell me that I could do anything.
I was never sure who to believe.
When credit card companies called my mom, I had to pretend she wasn’t home. When we sold our house, I had to pretend it was because we wanted to. When my nana stood in line for us and brought us government cheese, I had to pretend it was real cheese, special cheese from France, when a friend opened our fridge and saw it there.
I was ashamed of being poor, of my voice, of our circumstance.
I was stupid.
There’s nothing shameful about being poor. There’s nothing shameful about circumstances that you can’t control.
Drugs and Shame
While I’m up there, 17 North County residents are arrested in a drug trafficking sweep. Some are arrested outside the Wilderness. Most of the drugs arrests involve Suboxone and meth. At a classroom where I’m teaching for the week, we’re not allowed to talk about the bust because one of the kids is connected. Maybe more than one.
These kids? I’ve talked to thousands of kids, but these kids? They are my favorites.
There is nothing shameful in the mistakes your family members make. They aren’t your mistakes. They are theirs.
I want to somehow explain all that to them. I don’t know how.
Pittsburg is a tiny town without a grocery store and it’s about a half hour from Colebrook. The town has a library, but it’s inside the school and only open on Saturdays to the residents.
“We can’t take out enough books,” one student complains. “It’s so hard.”
Lots of life is hard up here, where an entire eighth and seventh grade class combined is only eight students, where you’re in class with your cousin and everyone knows, as one student tells me, “everything about your life since you were born 25 weeks early.”
That hardness doesn’t mean you should pity them though. These kids are some of the liveliest individuals I’ve ever met, free and comfortable in asserting who they are, grit and all, and still striving for futures and hopes that are still possible.
They are still possible.
They write stories, act out scenes, share their own stories without the slightest bit of hesitation. Whether it’s the UFO sighting above Beaver Falls or the grandmother who had the best restaurant in the area, unless you didn’t finish your meal and then she’d sit on you, it’s all about connections and community and laughter.
The northern parts of New Hampshire aren’t similar to southern New Hampshire. It’s not just about the geography. It’s also about the economy. The unemployment rate is higher, but the people are underemployed, working below their educations and skill sets. Stores are shuttered. There are no Starbucks or an easy to find McDonalds.
There are good things happening too. Robotech is about to hire 25 people at its new facility. There’s a proposal to make a community college in a place where there was once a mill. Snowmobilers come and so do summer tourists on ATVs.
But as one student tells me, “Sometimes it gets so lonely. It’s like the world forgets us.”
Another one nods, “I just can’t wait to get out.”
“Where will you go?” I ask.
“Anywhere. Anywhere.” She sits back in her chair, arms crossed, eyes toward the ceiling. Her face loses its hope.
“Maybe you could take that UFO over Beaver Falls,” another kid tells her.
They dissolve into teasing, giggles, and more stories. Kids again. Just kids. Momentarily not worrying about drug trafficking busts, the economy, getting away, but just laughing. The way it’s supposed to be. A way free of other people’s verdicts and edicts, no shame, no fear, just existing, just being who they are meant to be right now – kids.
READ MY BOOK BABY (AND MORE) ON PATREON
On February first, I launched my Patreon site where I’m reading chapters (in order) of a never-published teen fantasy novel, releasing deleted scenes and art from some of my more popular books. And so much more. Come hang out with me! Get cool things!
WHAT IS PATREON?
A lot of you might be new to Patreon and not get how it works. That’s totally cool. New things can be scary, but there’s a cool primer HERE that explains how it works. The short of it is this: You give Patreon your paypal or credit card # and they charge you whatever you level you choose at the end of each month. That money supports me sharing my writing and art and podcasts and weirdness with you.
IN THE WOODS – READ AN EXCERPT, PREORDER NOW!
My next book, IN THE WOODS, appears in July with Steve Wedel. It’s scary and one of Publisher’s Weekly’s Buzz Books for Summer 2019. There’s an excerpt of it there and everything! But even cooler (for me) they’ve deemed it buzz worthy! Buzz worthy seems like an awesome thing to be deemed!
You can preorder this bad boy, which might make it have a sequel. The sequel would be amazing. Believe me, I know. It features caves and monsters and love. Because doesn’t every story?