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Village Life

Spring(s) | On legend and legacy

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By Cyraina Johnson-Roullier

Just below the apex of the building that houses Pangaea, Dark Star Books and Current Cuisine in downtown Yellow Springs, there’s a colorful mural. In the middle, there is a short adage: “Our story begins in the Glen.” Right next to that is a beautiful representation of the Yellow Spring, from which the village takes its name. I like the fact that this is placed in the center of the mural, on a building that is at the center of town, just as the spring lies unobtrusively at the center of many, if not most, of villagers’ lives. 

One wonders — jokingly, though still with an underlying, curiously questioning hint of dubious-but-yet, just maybe, couldn’t-it-be-possible — might it be the water that so closely holds together our tightly knit community? Could it be because of the spring, never far away, always there in the background, that place to which, like the regular intake of breath, you know you will always return, certainly to visit, but of course also to drink, again and again? You know this is exactly what you have already done, and what you will continue to do, on and on into your indeterminate future. No matter where you are, you never forget that place of endless return, around which is created, invisibly, a unique and powerful communal bond, a fierce tie that bleeds out and consolidates into shared values — social, cultural and educational — that often run counter to those of mainstream America, leaving an indelible mark on one’s existence — a mark that says, “You can take the person out of Yellow Springs, but you can’t take Yellow Springs out of the person.” 

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I remember with immense joy my family’s frequent treks into the Glen with our off-leash dogs when I was a small child, and along with them, my many deep-seated childish misgivings surrounding the plastic containers filled with iron-rich water from the spring that would inevitably, magically — yet ominously — appear in our refrigerator after each of those amazing adventures. Starting immediately, I would, I knew, be made to drink that water, and only that water, because its iron content was “good for me,” though to a picky child it tasted absolutely horrible, like sucking on a penny, or worse, like using a rusty pipe as a straw. Nevertheless, it was an unsavory yet inescapable certainty that this is what I would drink, for days on end.

Many years later, I got curious about others’ relationship to the spring and its water, and I started asking all of my childhood friends and everyone in the community I could think of about it. Had they, as I had, taken their uninitiated spouses and children to the spring for that all-important first libation? Their non-village friends? Their dogs? To my great surprise, everyone I asked said “yes,” they had.

I also found unexpected corroboration in David Letterman’s “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction,” season three, episode three, when, led there by Dave Chappelle, Letterman drank from the familiar Spring while Chappelle stood by and said with a wide grin, “You’re definitely coming back here.” And all of it makes me think of the 2002 film “Tuck, Everlasting,” directed by Jay Russell, in which a family drinks some water from a spring they found in a forest, which, unbeknownst to them, made them immortal, after which they felt certain they had to hide its secret from all outsiders, lest the wrong people discover its amazing power.

In the case of the village, however, any such inclination surrounding the water would be more about protecting whatever secrets are to be found there than about hiding those same secrets. But perhaps it might be better to back up for a moment, just to make sure that we get things off on the right foot, and try to get a sense of why exactly we’re here talking about things concerning the village that we already know.  To do that, let me tell you a little bit about myself.

My name is Cyraina Johnson-Roullier, and this is the introduction to “Spring(s),” a new monthly column in the News, the goal of which is to explore and/or examine many of the things that all of us appreciate about the wonderful community we share, whether that relationship is one that has been short- or long-term. On a deeper note, however, this column is also meant to give voice to, celebrate and help preserve the village’s powerful legacy of privileging human community notwithstanding the wide range of cultural, ethnic, racial, national, religious or economic differences found among village residents, as well as its historical championing of diversity, equality, acceptance, inclusion and love, most particularly as these pertain to the perennial American problem of race, and its counterpart, gender.

Having grown up as an African American in Yellow Springs (Class of ’78), and especially because for a long time I have not lived, and currently don’t live in the village, I am a testament to and result of that unusual background, in a way that I often express by putting it like this: “Yellow Springs forever unfits you to be a Black person in this country.” But what does that even mean? And, you might ask, if you don’t actually live in the village now, how can what you have to say about it even be relevant? What I can tell you is that it’s precisely because of what I’ve learned from having spent a long time as an African American who is native to Yellow Springs yet living outside the village, embedded in mainstream America, that what I have to say is indeed relevant to a deeper understanding of our town. This is because that’s one of the most important places where, why and how the legacy of our radically unique, quirky and different community and its marvelous, human history becomes most powerfully visible.

Depending on your experience with life in the village, some of you may find much that you know and/or have experienced in what you’ll encounter here, and some of you may not, or may find my perspectives new, uncomfortable, and/or strange. But I hope you’ll come along with me on the journey I’m proposing anyway, to find out more, and that maybe you’ll pipe up with your own thoughts and experiences along the way. I’m so looking forward to traveling with you! So keep an eye out — the conversation is about to begin. See you next month.

*Cyraina Johnson-Roullier is associate professor of modern literature and literature of the Americas at the University of Notre Dame and a former Ford Foundation Fellow who regularly writes for the Chicago Tribune, among other outlets.


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