Nov 23, 2011
By Amy Clark
Photo © 2009 Stan Brewer
By Amy Clark
I recently requested in a job application that my potential employers allow me to “place myself at the mercy of their community.” Perhaps it was an odd request, but what prompted it was the fact that I am relocating to a landscape and community that I find an affinity with, and yet I am a relative stranger there. I know exactly one year-round resident of Duluth, Minnesota, and he technically lives in a rural area forty minutes away. But the snow! My friends gasp. The wolves! The bears! However, my decision is in line with my own philosophies of community building, and I aim to put them to the test. For what good are ideals if they remain abstract, floating like mirages in front of us, never to be realized?
In reflecting upon my strange request to my potential employers, I realized that it was essential for me to have a working definition or concept of the term ‘mercy.’ In a traditional definition, I would suppose it correlates with the concept of justice. A person asking for mercy is asking for another to bestow kindness on them, even if that kindness is not deserved. Here I am, the person says, in my natural vulnerable state, asking you to accept my reliance on your kindness or forgiveness. Follow the term further and it funnels into a sort of weak versus strong dichotomy, which is where I start to take issue.
I had a few pints last week with a relative stranger that I met in South Dakota. A traveling sales representative for an international chocolate company, he had asked me if I would permit him to contact me if he ever came through Ames. He liked to get to know the local culture, the personality of a place, to have a sense of community even in a career that relies on the opposite of rootedness.
We both ordered stout and discussed our shared history in the Pacific Northwest. The dark beer and the dim ambience of the pub brought nostalgia to the discussion: a wistfulness, and talk of journeys. He told me that he had taken a Greyhound bus to Portland, Oregon the summer before he was to begin graduate school. He boarded the bus with a suitcase and a bicycle, and un-boarded with only the bike. He had no friends, no job, no place to live and now next to no belongings. But the college agreed to put him up in the dormitory early, and he found work within a few weeks of hard looking. He was possibly as vulnerable as he had ever been; and clearly at the city’s mercy.
Stories like these remind me that a true community is not a group of people who have known and supported each other their whole lives – instead it is a thing alive: that shifts and evolves as new members show up on its shores with a few dollars and a bicycle, and others migrate out. It is a place to rest, to gather strength, to share insights and gather others. But most of all, it is a place where growth happens. To be at its mercy, then, doesn’t mean to show up and say: I am weak and you are strong; I have nothing and you have everything, so please share a little with me. No. Instead, I think it means to say: I have come here bereft of all my worldly possessions, with only the richness of the ideas and kind words I have gathered along the way. I will gladly give you every story in my book, if you will but share with me a little of yours.
Derelict. Freeloader. One who should ‘occupy a job’? These are things I risk becoming if my current venture fails. I have occupied this flat Midwestern landscape for many years now. I have soaked up its seasons. I have learned what it means to harvest, and to yield. I have been well cared for. I have spoken all my grievances to the wind. And now, because I want a better world, I choose to take the seeds from this place and try planting them somewhere else. I will go, with a suitcase, and maybe a bicycle, and make an offering to the Northern water. And I should not even have to ask for kindness – for it comes naturally when it is given. The wolves are preparing their den for another winter, which is okay. They do not frighten me. Instead, they serve, as a reminder that we are all, always, at each other’s mercy.
Amy Clark is a writer, educator and freelance editor, currently teaching at Des Moines Area Community College (go Bears!). Born and raised in Iowa, but having lived elsewhere in the Midwest and outside of it - Amy is currently exploring the concept of community in these short essays - what it means, and how it is forged by both people and place. She believes in the role of a writer as a conversation-starter, and hopes that some of her work will spark that. Please feel free to comment or email: email@example.com