Something important happened after Michael Martin’s death the other day in Northfield.
I have known Mike, off and on since he was a student at St. Olaf in 1969 and 1970. Over the past 15 years or so, I would see Mike on a downtown street, the library or grocery store. As David Wee recalled during the Memorial Service in the Community Center on Sunday, that on meeting Mike, he would almost always begin with, “You know, I’ve been thinking…”
And then Mike would expound on some idea relating to our common language of psychology, or perhaps drift into the more philosophical waters. These encounters, or conversations, between us would last from three to 10 minutes. Never more. But they represented much more than a stopwatch would suggest.
But I really can’t figure out what they did represent.
I almost always went away from those encounters wondering if it would help if I gave him ten bucks to wash his clothes. But, then, thinking that, I wondered why I cared how he looked. I did decide that I cared because I liked Mike. His cheerful greeting always made me feel good — like he was really glad to see me. His thoughtful, or at least heartfelt, reflections on psychology made me feel that he found me worth talking to about stuff that was meaningful to him – and me. My thoughts were never very succinct when it came to Mike, and they were always mixed with questions like, why, or what, or where.
Then came the Memorial Service last Sunday. George Sivanich and I mentioned to each other as we conversed about attending that service, that we hoped there would be more than a handful of people there. How delusional were we — that only he and I and a few others knew Mike well enough to come to his service on a Sunday afternoon. Sure.
When the dust settled after room separators had been opened, all available chairs lined up, all tables pushed into the back, there was Northfield – our Northfield, packed into two rooms. Folks from the library, both the professional and hanger-outers, a barber, postal worker, coach, dozens of runners, at least two lawyers, a bunch of professors, business people, some of whom had given conversation, others help, safety, food and lodging (talk about a Biblical story).
When in line before the service and talking to Mike’s sister-in-law, she mentioned that Northfield had meant so much to Mike. I replied, “And vice versa.” That remark got vigorous affirming nods from three heads up the line and the addendum, “He meant a lot to us.”
Amazing, actually. It says a lot about Mike, and a lot about our home-town, Northfield. But I’m still not sure what it says. That we care. That a lot of people care. That a lot of people who walk different paths care. That Mike cared. That Mike cared about a lot of people. That Mike cared about a lot of people who walked different paths.
Is that it? Is the relationship between Northfield and Mike some kind of an anomaly? It has a patchwork feel to it. Is this what community looks like – a patchwork quilt of sorts? Our relationships with Mike were certainly hodgepodged. Some people discussed books with him, some talked philosophy or psychology with Mike, some cared for his mail, some ran with him, or biked with him, some cut his hair, (some both ran or cut hair and talked about almost anything as they did so), some gave him safety from the storms, and food too.
Actually I have never really put into words what a small town community really looks like to me. Maybe this is one of Mike’s legacies. Perhaps Mike has given us a lens, an augmenting lens to see our town as a community in a way we have not seen it before now. In this augmented view, we can spot ourselves, our neighbors, our teachers, familiar faces, shop owners, delivery people and… We are community, and Mike was one of us. This is true, for sure, because there we were together on Sunday at the Community Center.
Mike seems to have given us a gift. A gift of understanding a bit more about what it really means to be a community — in the best sense of the word.
Editor’s Note: Holly Cairns blogged about Mike Martin on Northfield.org in April of 2006 with a post titled, Neighbor to Neighbor: Musing with Michael Martin. She granted Locally Grown permission to use her photo of Mike with Bruce’s blog post.