View from Glen Hill: Songs of life

Up here among the fields, lakes, woods and mountains of northwestern Maine, it seems especially right to drive along listening to the ballads of the late singer and composer Harry Chapin. Our son David is also good at doing his own covers of Chapin’s ballads on the porch by the lake we love not far from our farm as we sit watching magnificent sunsets.

Chapin is perhaps best known for his evocative Cat’s in the Cradle about a father who is away much of the time while his son is growing up, with its ironical refrain, “I want to be like you, Dad; you know I want to be like you.” Chapin’s songs speak of unrequited love and of dreams fulfilled and unfulfilled — or fulfilled in ways less than one had hoped when they are finally realized. From midnight watchmen to baritone tailors, his protagonists speak with poignancy, and his lyrics are as creative as they are evocative. Combined with piano, bass and cello, his guitar and voice are captivating — though his songs tend to have such long playing times, given their intricate tales, as to cause him to miss many radio-play opportunities given commercial radio’s play-time requirements.

For Becky and me on our long drives up to Maine from the time of our children’s childhoods onward, they were the soundtrack for our transition to summer vacation, and our kids from young ages on could sing along with the words as well as we did. Hence, our son’s regular performances of them now as part of those porch concerts.

These songs are only a small part of what is so evocative up here, as I expect is so for many others who vacation each year in the same spot wherever that may be. I thought of those songs especially last week as our younger grandkids, four-year-old Ellis and three-year-old Nora, first cousins and good friends (when not squabbling over something they both want simultaneously) chose to abandon our ’88 Jeep riding up the logging road behind our farm as we reached the lane path to the back of the farm. They proceeded together on foot, running along hand-in-hand, laughing as I drove the Jeep slowly up the lane behind them. It was one of those sights that melt a grandparent’s heart!

Along with many such idyllic scenes in this small town of 800, there are also more than a few Chapin-worthy bittersweet or melancholic things that happen among folks who love living in the beauty of “God’s country” but find eking out a living here challenging. So, the pastor of the town’s Congregational church spoke recently about the challenges when first starting her ministry here a decade ago. She was not known then locally and hence subject to the usual “newbie” suspicions in a small and close-knit town.

Her idea for a town food pantry and her encouragement of her congregation to fill this need that she perceived were initially not very well received: “How could you presume to think that our people are in that kind of need!” Yet that pantry now serves 30 to 40 families, with the composition of its clientele in multiple cases varying with the seasons, depending on whether they have winter or summer jobs. And now the food pantry is warmly embraced by all. That’s how things work in small towns — and more than often in bigger ones as well, certainly.

It’s taken time to get accepted for us too up here, but after more than four decades of summer appearances, we’re well-known and recognized as regularly here and “OK.” In fact, notoriously taciturn Mainers can actually become loquacious when they come to know you well, sharing their stories of happinesses and successes as well as of challenges and disappointments. One can’t help but admire their fortitude and resilience, and their ability to do so many tasks so well, especially logging the woods and farming the land. I’m watching now the farmer who harvests our 50 acres of hay himself, using lots of mostly aged mechanical equipment — all of which he needs to keep running — to do the cutting and baling into both square and round bales. He’s a delight to know with lots of great stories and two grown children who are in business and heading off to law school, respectively. They’ve learned under his very able guidance how to love and care for the land.

And so it goes up here in God’s country, living a Chapin ballad.