Three and a half years ago I moved to Maine from NYC. I moved because I wanted a stronger sense of community, to be closer to nature, closer to family. In many ways, I have found that. But, as change never goes just as we expect it to, I’ve also found that in some ways it can be much harder to just be myself in this smaller community where worlds and roles are constantly colliding.
With the anonymity of a big city, all the subtle ways I tailored my personality to suit different parts of my life went unnoticed, even by myself. Stripped of this, I’ve found much more ease in my own skin, but still find myself yielding at times to the safer, less provocative version of myself. Yet, that true, deep, vulnerable connection is what I crave and thrive off of. It’s what brought me to this small community to begin with. Intellectually I know I’m not alone in this dance, but it can be so easy to lose sight of that in the hustle of everyday life.
So how absolutely refreshing to walk through the doors of USM’s Hannaford Hall for Maine Live last month and be greeted by Ekhlas Ahmed sharing the most vivid imagery of her memories as a child in her mother’s kitchen in Sudan, challenging our perceptions and encouraging the audience to think about how we “invest” our time and energy. “I believe in spending time, being a part of a group, singing together, sharing meals together,” she shared. “If you think children don’t remember, you are wrong.”
From there the stories just rolled. Chris Kast sharing his transformative recovery from a stroke and the strength and power and love that came in finding his way to the bold bravery it takes to ask for help. Dr. Renee Fay-LeBlanc sharing stories of the forgotten corners of society she sees everyday in her work as a Physician at Greater Portland Health.
Kifah Abdulla transporting us to his time as a prisoner of war in Iran. Describing the hunger “like a beast devouring slowly from inside” and capturing the futile essence of war as “Trying to teach us how to be afraid of the other. How to hate so blindly we cannot comprehend the reality when we realize they look just like us.”
Maine Farmland Trust’s Amanda Beal shining a light on our current food system where unhealthy food is so often the most accessible and cost effective option, and imploring us to demand better. “Collectively, we built it this way, and collectively, we can change it.” And Dr. Zev J. Myerowitz, Jr. encouraging us to retain agency over our health and wellbeing in the way we talk to our doctors, the types of care we seek and never being too busy for TLC for our bodies.
It was a day of stories of change, of loss and potential, of the connective tissue of our community growing, being tested and evolving. The vulnerability modeled for us in each presentation carried into conversations, connections and laughter during the breaks and over lunch outside in the grass. Intentionally lengthy breaks encouraged interaction with strangers, friends and colleagues alike. We talked about how easy it is to overlook opportunities like this in our busy lives, but how so important the connection and sense of community is – for our own wellbeing and for the strength of the collective. In the days since the event, I’ve found myself leaning into that true self more, reaching out a hand or smile to connect with someone new, and tuning into the potential more than the limitations of this incredible place we call home.