Today Paul Schell died. Most people will have to do research to learn who he was. Most people will identify him by his job as Mayor of Seattle. On Whidbey he’s as well known for caring about a small town called Langley, a place he moved to and helped shape. Live and stay active long enough and be known for many things. We get chances every day to redefine ourselves. The people that impress me the most are the ones that take those opportunities and try to make those changes positive.
I’ve lived in or near Langley for nine years. I’ve actually known about and visited Langley since 1980, but it wasn’t until 2005 that I moved to Whidbey Island. Now I live near the southern tip. The county seat is thirty miles up the road. The biggest, and really only, city is about ten miles farther north. (It’s a big island.) World travelers know about the island from two tourist towns: Coupeville and Langley. They’re both good places. (A friend and I have produced videos of both: Langley, Coupeville.) For my first two official years I settled in Langley because, while as nice as Coupeville, Langley had the right mix of businesses that made it possible to live car-free. It was almost as if someone, or some group, had decided to design a place with a grocery, not a supermarket; a theater, not a multi-plex; more than enough bookstores; multiple real theaters for plays within a few blocks; and an awareness of the value of gardens, parks, and architecture.
I also moved out after two years on the advice of someone with many more years in the town. Move to Langley for two years. Get to know an amazing community of engaged people. Then, if you don’t like living in a fish bowl, get out of town. I’ve lived about ten miles out of Langley since then. Sweet as it looks, any small town is a opportunity for the authentic and enthusiastic inquiry into a person’s well-being even if there’s nothing to say and the only person to say it to is a stranger; e.g. gossip. As a single guy I heard too many stories about me, sometimes based on nothing more than someone picking my house to park their car in front of.
I don’t know the extent of Paul’s influence. Most of it was quiet, or at least not grabbing headlines. But as I became more familiar with the town, his name would come up about this initiative, or that contribution. Sadly, I was unexpectedly the one to deliver the news of his death to someone he mentored. Her reaction was immediate and heartfelt. No one I knew treated the news lightly. He obviously hadn’t just retired to Langley.
Transitions are more common because change is less unavoidable. Decades ago it was possible to move somewhere so remote that the news wouldn’t reach, but that doesn’t happen anymore.
Through layoffs, retirements, and friends passing I’m witnessing many people dealing with transitions. Transitions aren’t easy; especially, when identities are challenged. In America, identity and job title are synonymous. I had two major transitions: retiring from engineering in 1998, and getting divorced in 2005. Married engineer is a respectable label, and one that is easy to add into an introduction or into a conversation. Unmarried unengineer doesn’t work, not even for spellcheck; and it only defines the negatives. Eventually I stumbled into a variety of labels that I velcro to myself depending on the situation: consultant, writer, artist, dancer. Consultant is handy in any business setting because it is vague enough to be easily engaged with or passed over without judgment. Writer and artist are handy titles because people have so low expectations of them. If a writer is sober and ontime they are exceeding expectations. Dancer is handy is there’s music playing because, well, come on, it’s fun dancing with a partner.
Without knowing if anyone is writing Paul’s biography, I know that I am impressed with anyone who can move from being the mayor of a major city of near-enough to one million people to being an advocate and enthusiast for a town of near-enough to one thousand people without a publicly apparent problem with ego.
Paul’s passing affected me more than I expected because it was sudden and because I wonder what is going to happen to small towns like Langley as generations shift. Sustaining Small Town Charity comes to mind with renewed emphasis. Small towns are losing young people to big cities because of jobs and culture. Langley certainly has culture but the volume tends to be low and done by 10pm. Langley has jobs but they tend to pay minimum wage and rely on the seasonal tourist traffic. I cheer one response which is Fusion Spark Media’s Kickstarter campaign to bring people and non-tourism jobs to the entire island. Such initiatives are necessary, and are more likely to rely on local businesses and individuals than municipal institutions. A small tax base can result in small efforts which aren’t enough.
We are living longer. A life with a career ended after thirty years can fit in yet another career with time left over. The re- part of retirement is more re-definition, a chance to do something different now that you have decades of experience and hopefully wisdom. Oh, if I was starting out again . . . Well, most of us will. Look at what Paul did with his.
Hey, there’s an idea. Come to Langley and look at what Paul did with his. And not just Paul. Look at what a community can do. Langley isn’t pristine. Anyone who spends more than a week in any place can soon hear the intrigues, meet the range of characters, find the gold and the tarnish. Even so, impressive things happen.
And not just Langley, and not just small towns. As a wave of transitions wash across the country, millions will wonder what to do next whether by choice or necessity. There is plenty of work to do, and amazing people becoming available to do it – or at least to continue on the work of others. An amazing opportunity to respect those who came before, to define new roles in life, and to welcome others to join in. Oh yes, and there will be dancing.