Madison Monday: Three Pines versus Madison

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JoeyG's
Happening art opening at JoeyG’s

I’ve been reading a wonderful mystery series by Louise Penny, the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series.  These books are set in Canada, mostly in a small village south of Montreal called Three Pines.  As you will read over and over on the back jacket of the mysteries, “You won’t find Three Pines anywhere on a map, but it’s so real, you’ll want to move there!”

Three Pines is a tiny village tucked into the mountains with a decidedly odd assortment of residents, including a higher than average per capita number of artists, poets and amazing makers of croissant and artisan cheeses.  The particular group of residents whom you get to know best so far have regular dinners in which folks just drop by.  They celebrate holidays together, they hang out at the local bistro drinking café au lait.  They hide Easter eggs for the children in April.  They all go carolling in December.  Can this place be real?

Madison is a pretty great little town, but no carollers have ever showed up outside my door, though maybe that’s just because I don’t live in the right neighborhood.  Reading about Three Pines, I did find myself wishing I lived there.  Or at least wishing Madison had some nice croissant (which, to be fair, we did when the 605 would open for breakfast.  Alas!)

As I’ve written before, Madison is a real town.  We, too, probably have a higher per capita number of artists and poets and other very talented people.  But being a real town instead of a fictional one, not everything is all artists and poets and croissants.  People are poor.  There is crime, and not just of the glamorous sort in mystery novels.  Sometimes people are quite mean to each other, and sometimes they’re just indifferent in ways that have about the same effect as meanness.  There is greed and selfishness a plenty.

A little part of me was sad last week at the comparison between my real town and the imaginary one in Three Pines.  Mostly my sadness was about the spontaneous drop-ins that happen in the books, though I did notice that all the people doing the dropping in are childless, which would seem to make a difference.  Also, the drop-in is one of those things that’s much better in theory than it is in practice.  You think you want people to just drop by until they actually show up at your front door while you’re in your comfy pants.

All the same, I found myself wishing that I lived in a place like that.  And then this Friday we sat at our regular spot at the 605 bar and got to see a friend who’d moved out of town come back for a visit.  We heard a story from another friend about landing at an airport in Kentucky that didn’t have any gasoline.  I watched one of the waiters at the 605 turn the menu around and read a description of one of the dishes out loud for someone who didn’t have their reading glasses with them, a small and easily missed act of kindness if you’re not looking for it.

Madison-Milton bridge
Bridge construction from the river

Saturday morning, we helped another friend move into her new house downtown, an act of pure joy and community (especially when the moving only took an hour and a half) to help someone start a new life in a lovely new place, all the potential of an empty house stretching out in front of her.  As we walked up to the house with our loads of lamps and boxes, we were immediately accosted by one of her new neighbors with a handful of tomatoes to give away, while her neighbor on the other side had sat a pot of mums on her front stoop.

We followed the morning moving with lunch at Shooter’s, where we ran into more friends at the bar there, one of whom joined us later in the day for a pontoon boat ride on the river.  Riding up the river, we scared great blue herons in our passing, and saw them flying over the river like movable bomber planes.  In one of the smaller creeks we went up, we saw dark spots in the water that turned out to be schools of minnow, swarming together in thick circles and lines under the water.

Sunday, we walked into a wine tasting at the 605 an hour late to be greeted by an actual round of applause and cheers, a sure sign that it must always be better to show up late.  After discussing the possibility of a powder puff faculty football game at Hanover over wine and the best buttermilk biscuits I have ever tasted, we moved on to an art opening at JoeyG’s.  And there we found our daughter, and friends, and neighbors, and lovely art, and a generally good time on a Sunday night.

I remember the first time I read the Buddhist idea that fantasies, living inside worlds in your head that don’t really exist, is not such a good idea all in all.  I was horrified.  I’ve spent a lot of time living inside my head, in a whole variety of worlds made up by me or other people.  Three Pines is really just the latest in a long line.

There’s nothing wrong with having a healthy imagination; it’s part of what allows us to feel compassion and empathy.  But look at how Three Pines almost made me miss the perfect village in which I already live.  So maybe people don’t drop in, but instead we run into each other, quite often at a bar, which is definitely better in that there are less dishes to do.  Maybe we don’t have croissant anymore, but the biscuits at the wine tasting on Sunday satisfied a deep longing inside me that I didn’t even know I had.  Maybe there’s no carolling, but there’s folk festival and Chautauqua and countless other seasonal events.

The author who created Three Pines, according to her biography on the book jacket, lives in a small village south of Montreal.  “Is it Three Pines?” I wondered to myself.  “Could she really live in such a place, or did she make it sound much better than it actually is?”  Who knows?

If you want to believe that the place you live is not at all like some imaginary ideal, than it never will be.  This is for the simple reason that the ideal will blind you to all wonderful things that are already there.  But if you give the place you live half a chance, you might find it’s actually better than that world inside your head.

In Three Pines versus Madison, Madison wins hands down.

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