The place to be

A friend of mine always looks forward to the end of November - the last leaves falling, the sky growing clear, the view across the valley hiding nothing. It is a time when our sight is sharpened and we see farther down fields and through woodlands. We spot houses we never knew existed and ponds of bright water which the leaves had hid before. We grow more aware of our neighbors, realizing somewhat keenly that they are closer than we had ever thought.

But it wasn't always so in November.

When William Bradford arrived at these shores with one hundred twenty-six others, there were no neighbors to see. As he writes in his book Of Plimouth Plantation:m ''Being thus passed the vast ocean, they had no friends to welcome them, nor inns to entertain or refresh their weatherbeaten bodies, no houses or much less towns to repair to, to seek for succour. For summer being done, all things stand upon them with a weatherbeaten face; and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hue.''

Last week I saw my widowed neighbor Mrs. Lieb at the post office. We had a lively conversation by her car, the outcome of which was our agreement that we had not been good neighbors. Oh, we had said hello, and smiled, and chatted, but we had not ''visited.'' And this was true of our neighbors all around. We knew names and faces and some voices, but we did not know many human particulars about them - what made them sad on occasion, and what made them eager. Yet this was not the wild and savage land that Bradford knew but a town with roads and friends. Now that the leaves have fallen we see their houses, and we wonder about them.

The frontier that meant so much to our ancestors, the frontier that so occupied the historian Frederick Turner as an explanation for American development, is still with us, but its dimensions have changed. No longer do we look west, or even to the stars, for discoveries that will sharpen and strengthen our lives. The land around us is closer than that; its lines are only slightly extended. There are a lot of small journeys we have not taken - up the hill, across the valley, around the bend in the road - to those houses whose doors would surely open if we asked.

I think of the poem by E.A. Robinson about old Eben Flood, that convivial man who has outlived all his friends, and whose story closes with these rather plaintive lines:

There was not much that was ahead of him,

And there was nothing in the town below -

Where strangers would have shut the many doors

That many friends had opened long ago.

How different our own situation is from Eben's. And how different from Bradford's pilgrims. In November, as perhaps in no other month, we begin to notice those things around us we had never quite seen before. The landscape holds back nothing from our eyes. By taking a few steps, we could begin to fill it with ourselves.

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