Podunk has become a word of mild derision for a small and unenlightened town, remote from the sophistication of city life. It turns out, however, that Podunk is an actual place, and it’s just down the road from the little town where I live in central Massachusetts. Podunk was named after a tribe of Algonquians whom the Europeans dubbed the Podunks. There is still a Podunk Road not far from my house, but what was once called Podunk is now East Brookfield, a few miles away from North Brookfield where I live.
Today North Brookfield resembles the “Podunk” of the condescending urban imagination even more than does East Brookfield. It’s a small blue-collar town where people have second jobs to make ends meet. Standing in the middle of town – which you can’t miss – you might think you were in rural Arkansas or West Virginia. There are no traffic lights, no gas station, one grocery store, and no road wider than one lane each way. I live quietly when I’m in town, and I’m out of town most of the time, so I know no one in town well and very few people at all, except for the people at the post office, one or two people at the grocery store and the local auto mechanic.
But North Brookfield is a place where people who try to say things well are vastly outnumbered – thank goodness – by people who try to make things work. And when the chips are down, or the power is out, or the car won’t start, we all need people who can make things work. I love these people, even though I’m sure I’m a puzzle to them. I am in constant admiration of my fellow townspeople. Our town is a little piece of the "Midwest" right here in the otherwise ideologically trendy Massachusetts.
I live a very solitary life here. Months go by without visitors. But my little house sits on the brow of a hill, about a hundred yards from a road that leads into the center of town. There is a large window in the entry room of my home that is visible from the road. So, as I did last year, I put my Christmas tree in front of that window, where it’s more visible to passersby than it is to me. It’s my way of wishing my neighbors a Merry Christmas.
My only real friends in this part of the world are monks at St. Joseph’s Abbey where I go for Lauds and Mass every morning when I’m in town. I’ve gotten to know a number of the monks over the four and a half years that I’ve lived here. Some of them listen to the monthly CDs from the Emmaus Road Initiative talks and regularly assure me of their prayers for our work. With rare exceptions, however, almost the only verbal exchange the monks and I have is when one of them says “The Body of Christ” and “The Blood of Christ” at the Eucharist and I reply “Amen.” Monks are masters at communicating with small and ecclesial gestures, and the Eucharist is an especially opportune occasion for this.
It’s life in Podunk. It has its challenges, but it has its charms as well. I'm grateful for it.
P. S. Speaking of monks, my friend Brother Jonah Wharf is being ordained a priest tomorrow – Saturday, December 20th – at New Melleray Abbey in Iowa. Please keep him in your prayers.