Po­lit­i­cal cam­paign leads to lessons in lone­li­ness

The Morning Call - - TOWN SQUARE - Bill Broun teaches writ­ing at East Strouds­burg Univer­sity and lives in Heller­town.

Last spring, I failed in a bid to be­come a coun­cil mem­ber in Heller­town. My cam­paign wasn’t too clever, and I lost by seven votes. Life goes on. What I learned about my com­mu­nity was far more im­por­tant than my po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tions, and it’s an is­sue around which we should unite, es­pe­cially as elec­tion sea­son looms again in Northamp­ton County.

Spend a month or two do­ing po­lit­i­cal can­vass­ing — any kind of can­vass­ing, prob­a­bly — and you’ll as­cer­tain more about to­day’s neigh­bor­hoods than you’ll ever find on Google or so­cial me­dia.

You’ll stum­ble upon sur­prises. You’ll see who has the messi­est yet most in­ter­est­ing porches (Democrats). And the best-con­structed porches (Re­pub­li­cans). Who loves pit bulls (ev­ery­body). You’ll as­cer­tain that even when a door­bell but­ton hangs by its wires, it of­ten still works. And when home­own­ers put up “No Tres­pass­ing” signs, they dang well mean it.

I also no­ticed that a de­cent num­ber of peo­ple in my town can be found, in the mid­dle of the day, get­ting drunk, alone. Which, per­haps, re­lates to my main sub­ject.

For the dark­est se­cret I en­coun­tered in my friendly home­town wasn’t cor­rup­tion, in­com­pe­tence, crony­ism or even al­co­holism. It was hu­man lone­li­ness.

A sick­en­ing and ur­gent alone­ness slith­ers through Heller­town like some rarely seen snake, leav­ing a long trail of need in its rep­til­ian spoor.

The lone­li­ness was es­pe­cially ev­i­dent among the ag­ing. I met an old Irish Demo­crat, orig­i­nally from Philly, who voted for Trump, and yet who promised to vote for me — a big, Trump-loathing lib­eral — not be­cause he agreed with me (he called my cam­paign “bull——”), but be­cause I both­ered to stop at his house at all. I just about fell in love with this blonde-and-gray-haired gent. His flinty eyes, his lived lo­cal his­tory, his game­ness for the old-fash­ioned doorto-door demo­cratic tus­sle — I found it in­cred­i­bly charm­ing. How he could vote for Trump was be­yond me. But we con­nected be­cause this man was des­per­ate to be heard.

And no one has been lis­ten­ing. I came upon dozens of house-proud se­niors liv­ing alone. There was an old woman with per­fect pink rhodo­den­drons along­side an emer­ald lawn. Her box­wood shrubs looked as smoothly cut as big green gum­drops, but her press­ing con­cern was about a tree not be­ing re­planted at the church across the street. There was a tall, well­dressed Ko­rean War vet­eran who re­minded me of Cary Grant. Strik­ing orig­i­nal art­work filled his house. This hand­some Ma­rine in­vited me in, lis­tened in­tently, nod­ded and helped get me on the bal­lot (he has since died, I learned).

There was a nona­ge­nar­ian woman with a minty-col­ored retro-cool kitchen from 1962. She wor­ried, al­most help­lessly, I sensed, about young hip­sters spilling dan­ger­ously onto Main Street from a trendy lo­cal wa­ter­ing hole. On vot­ing day, I saw this woman hob­ble down the side­walk and into the poll, with great dif­fi­culty and greater dig­nity. I had her vote — but she had my heart.

It wasn’t just the old. I came upon peo­ple iso­lated by many cir­cum­stances — new­ness to their com­mu­nity, the bur­dens of child care, race, eth­nic­ity or just plain ec­cen­tric­ity. There was a long-haired mu­si­cian with sto­ries ga­lore and no one to hear them. There was a black woman who wanted to talk to some­one about how the po­lice treat the men­tally ill. A county is­sue, I thought. “I’ll do my best to con­vey your con­cerns,” I said. But I knew that what the woman re­ally needed big­ger was a chance to con­tinue the con­ver­sa­tion.

It be­came in­creas­ingly clear, as I knocked on door af­ter door, that hun­dreds of my neigh­bors sim­ply never have any­one visit them. In our world of web-based echo cham­bers and so­cial­me­dia bub­bles, it’s not just chil­dren who suf­fer from, say, un­reg­u­lated screen-time.

It’s also what we’re not do­ing as com­mu­nity mem­bers. We’re not talk­ing to each other. We’re not lis­ten­ing to real peo­ple who live be­side us. In­stead, we’re post-rag­ing on Twit­ter. We’re hate-lik­ing pho­tos of dis­tant friends on va­ca­tion in Ber­muda but ig­nor­ing the silent need across the street.

I don’t want to knock a healthy soli­tude. Per­haps a few peo­ple I saw as “lonely” were merely pro­jec­tions of my own fears. Em­brac­ing soli­tude, af­ter all, is where the mys­tic Thomas Mer­ton sug­gests “the deep­est ac­tiv­i­ties” be­gin.

But I also saw some­thing sad. Won­der­ful, won­der­ful peo­ple — so many of them — want­ing to talk, wait­ing to share them­selves, des­per­ate for a chat, and just a knock away.

SHUTTERSTO­CK

The au­thor says his po­lit­i­cal cam­paign taught him that be­hind many of the closed doors in his com­mu­nity were lonely peo­ple look­ing for some hu­man con­nec­tion in their day.

Bill Broun

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