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Rutland Boy, Mississippi Girl


Published April 6, 2016 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated April 12, 2016 at 2:21 p.m.

The baggage belt sounded and began its not-quite-circular rotation, the bags making their appearance — dramatically, I've always thought — through a curtain of clear plastic strips.

"This is where I always hold my breath," Daniel said to me. "There were so many legs, which means so many opportunities to have lost our luggage."

My customers, Candace and Daniel Olafson, stood beside me, each of them with a cart. Having been out of the country — in Bali, no less — for nearly two months, they had multiple pieces of luggage. The air travel from Bali consumes some 30 hours, and the couple looked ragged yet somehow serene. While they're both contemplative, quiet people by nature, I think, the experience of being in Bali engenders serenity, as well. I've been the pair's designated airport driver for several of these trips, and they've told me all about it. Well, probably not all, but a lot.

"If you think about it, Dan," I suggested, "holding your breath is probably the worst thing you can do when you're anxious."

He chuckled and said, "Very good point."

All of the Olafsons' luggage arrived, accounted for and intact. Fitting it into my Chevy Malibu took jigsaw-puzzle skills as we strategically filled the entire trunk as well as the front seat.

"It's so wonderful to be back in Vermont," Candace said from the backseat, breathing it all in as we cleared the airport en route to their Underhill Center home.

"How was your trip this year? Did you connect with old friends and colleagues?"

"We sure did," Dan replied. "The monsoons arrived late, and the temperature was 105 at, like, noon, so that was a challenge. But the people were lovely and hospitable as always. Our students were great, too. I think they all had a meaningful experience. In fact, I'm sure they did."

Daniel is a retired UVM teacher; I believe he used to be the senior staff psychologist at the counseling center. Under the auspices of some ongoing program, he still organizes this yearly trek to Bali with a select group of undergrads. He and his wife have built up relationships with Balinese academics, environmentalists, artists and just regular village folks. They've explained to me that, the holistic island society being what it is, these categories often blend together.

After all these years, I get the impression that the couple is deeply absorbed in the country — the land, the people, the culture, the spirituality. It's gone far beyond a dry academic program. For the Olafsons, Bali truly has become a second home.

"You've come a long way for a local Rutland boy," I offered. "A university career, and you and your wife both practicing psychotherapists. And where was it you grew up, Candy? Wasn't it some little town in Mississippi?"

"Good memory, Jernigan," she replied. "Michigan City, Mississippi."

"My gosh. I've got to say, you just don't strike me as a girl from the Deep South."

"You noticed, huh?" Candy said, chuckling. "I actually attended Ole Miss in the early '60s. My sister encouraged me to join a sorority, and I did because I was an introvert. I thought that would help me get out of my shell. That was my thinking, anyway. I'll tell you, I stuck out at Tri Delta like a sore thumb! When I graduated, I immediately joined the Peace Corps. I believe I might have been the first person in the whole state to sign up."

"That's where we met," Dan jumped in. "In the Peace Corps in Guyana. After living there for a year and falling in love, it was major culture shock coming back to the United States, wasn't it, Candy?"

"I don't know if I've ever recovered," she replied with a wistful sigh.

In the rearview mirror, I watched them spontaneously turn to face each other with the sweetest expression of mutual love. There are many varieties of successful marriage, but there's no single foolproof template. Sometimes opposites attract; at other times, they fight to the death. Dan and Candy, it struck me, have forged a true and equal partnership, one with a shared vision and purpose. That quality of bonding is precious, and, inside my mind, I bowed down in acknowledgment of their rare achievement. In my world, sustainable love is more valuable than diamonds.

"Do we have that wedding party this week, Dan?" Candy asked.

"Yes, I think it's next weekend at the St. John's Club. Do you know about that place, Jernigan? In the Lakeside neighborhood?"

"Oh, sure. I love that joint. I remember Seven Days did an article where they dubbed it a 'lakefront club for the average Joe.' It's so relaxed and unpretentious, with the beautiful sloping lawn down to the water, where you can hang out and watch the sunsets. And they have an epic karaoke night every Friday. The place is as Burlington as you can get."

We reached Clark's Truck Center with its roadside temperature sign and bore right onto the River Road. I considered my weary customers smiling in the backseat and realized they even looked alike, a phenomenon I've observed before in couples who've been together for decades. They both seemed to embody a loose-limbed comfort in their own skins. On the cusp of old age, they appeared open and receptive to whatever life would throw their way.

"Hey, I had an idea," I said as we approached their house. "If you ever decide to renew your vows, you can hold the ceremony at the St. John's Club. How cool would that be?"

Candy said, "Oh, my goodness! When we got married, we were just back from Guyana and the Peace Corps. We were so young! We had no idea what we were doing."

"Well, that was good in a way," I suggested. "Because if you did, you might never have done it, and look at all the fun you would have missed."

All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.