In this case, no fences make good neighbors
August is always a banner month for the MacDowell Colony because that’s when they hold their annual Medal Day honoring some of the brightest stars in the arts firmament. It should also be an important time locally because for one thing, the MacDowell Colony and Thornton Wilder were responsible for putting Peterborough on the world’s map as “Our Town.” Not bad for a place tucked away in the corner of one of the smallest states in our union.
The town of Peterborough and MacDowell have been neighbors for more than a hundred years now — and in a way it has been an unusual relationship. Unlike ordinary neighborhoods, you never get to see any of the MacDowell artists out in their driveways washing their cars, for instance, or chatting over backyard fences with neighbors. They mean no disrespect, but privacy is what MacDowell is all about. Just ask any artist who’s had the chance to create there.
Most writers I know would give anything for a stay at MacDowell. Not only is it an honor for them to be chosen, but they are often desperate to find a place of their own to do their work. Sometimes the creative juices just don’t flow at your kitchen table or at your desk. Just ask J.K. Rowling. Instead of writing those Harry Potter books at home, she escaped to a coffee shop — and the rest is history.
Then there is a little thing called money. Unless they were lucky enough to inherit a fortune from their Aunt Edith, or have already made it big in the arts world, most poets, novelists, visual artists and musicians are not awash in money. They would love to get away and spend time at MacDowell. Just think of it — a cabin of their own, daily lunches delivered in a basket each noontime and privacy, all for free. Oh, I am sure that once in a while a colonist feels the need to get off the reservation for one reason or another. According to a secret source of mine, occasionally a MacDowell artist has been known to wander into the Chamber of Commerce office and ask, “Is there anything to do around here?” But that is extremely rare.
A few years ago I decided to apply to the MacDowell Colony myself. Although I’d been writing poetry and newspaper columns for some time, I knew it was a long shot. My plan was to take Emily Dickinson with me, because by then I’d been out lecturing about her for so long that we’d become joined at the hip. I could just see us in our little cabin writing fanciful stories and poems that would take Emily to places she never even dreamed she could go.
When MacDowell responded, however, reality set in. They pointed out the fact that the usual length of stay there was much longer than I could muster. In my enthusiasm to apply I had overlooked a little thing like my having a job that allowed me only two weeks vacation. Even with Emily along, what on earth did I think we could accomplish in such a short time anyway?
Years later, still grieving over my botched chance at MacDowell, I moved to the Town of Peterborough and made do with the fact that at least I was breathing the same air as those artists up on High Street. I also was able to attend several Medal Days and a highlight for me was when the artists would invite us in to see their cabins. One year I entered a writer’s cabin and found her sitting at her desk while wearing roller skates. The reason was simple, said she. When she ran out of ideas and writers block set in, she would just put on the skates and whirl around inside that little cabin until the Muse came back. There are a lot of free spirits at MacDowell.
When I think of Medal Day and the long relationship between MacDowell and the town of Peterborough, I think of Robert Frost who, by the way, was a MacDowell medalist himself.
In his poem “Mending Wall,” two neighbors work side by side each year to repair a stone wall that divides their properties. One neighbor keeps saying “Good fences make good neighbors,” while the other is skeptical and insists, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Despite their occasional differences, they remain friends for years. And so it is with MacDowell and Our Town.
In the true spirit of its founders, Edward and Marian MacDowell, the Colony has no walls to keep people out nor to keep people in. To paraphrase Mr. Frost, “No fences make good neighbors.” And may it ever be thus.
Joann Snow Duncanson, a former Peterborough resident now living in Greenland, is the author of “Who Gets the Yellow Bananas?,” co-author of “Breakfast in the Bathtub” and author of her latest book, “Eight Crayons - Poems and Stories by an Almost Sane Woman.” Reach her at www.jsnowduncanson. com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.